Back in 2002, Kristin McHugh and I went to Kosovo to report a couple of segments for our Children of War radio documentary. Kristin discovered the story of this amazing American musician and composer, Liz Shropshire, who had left her life in in California to help kids in Kosovo. In 1999, Liz heard about the Kosovars fleeing genocide in their homeland. She thought she might go help in the refugee camps in Albania for a few weeks.
Once she got there and started teaching music, pennywhistle, and harmonica to these kids, she knew this was more than just a three week job. So she came home, raised more money, and started the Shropshire Music Foundation and the Kosovo Children's Music Initiative. She does her work in Gjakova. A city where people say every child lost at least one family member in the war.
Kristin and I fell in love with the program. It was amazing to see Liz at work and meet all of the teens she was training as volunteers to go out and do music classes all over the area. We met lots of kids who told us their lives were changed forever by Liz's effort. Some parents even cried when they talked about how wonderful this all was. During one of the classes we attended, at a displaced person's camp called "Slovene Village," Liz had the kids singing all kinds of songs in English and Albanian including "She'll be Coming Round the Moutain" and "Supercalifragilisticexpealidocius." I was recording, listening in the headphones. And the sound was truly amazing... a gift to us from the radio gods. At one point I pulled Kristin's ear close to me and said, "If we can't win an award with this material, we might as well quit the business."
We were so impressed by what we saw, Kristin and I wanted to do all we could to help Liz's program. Kristin had the idea to bring Liz to Muscatine to do speaking engagements and raise money. Several months later, when Liz was in Muscatine, Ethel Kennedy called Kristin to say the program we did about Liz had won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.
Enter Ric Smith. My kids had been part of a nondenominational youth and children's choir in Muscatine led by Ric and Cynthia Smith for years. Ric is music director at Muscatine's Wesley United Methodist Church. I told Ric about Liz, her upcoming visit to Muscatine, and gave him a copy of the radio program. Apparently Ric had been thinking for some time that he was being called to "do something" for Kosovo. So we told the kids in the choirs about Liz's program and arranged for Liz to come work with them while she was in Muscatine. When she came the kids had a great time, but they were disappointed she didn't have any of her kids with her!
Ric then had a great idea. Let's take our choir to Kosovo. We could do music, help the volunteers there, and do service projects. So we got the parents together, and said, "Hey, we want to take your kids to Kosovo!" Well, that didn't go over so well. Like most Americans, they knew almost nothing about Kosovo expect that there was a war. And these parents, some of the biggest hearted people you will ever meet, were not thrilled about the idea of sending their kids to what was effectively still a war zone.
So we did the next best thing. We raised more money and brought Liz and a dozen of her kids to Iowa for two weeks in the summer of 2004. The Kosovars lived with choir families, and we toured around the state singing and playing together. It was an amazing experience. People in Muscatine had their lives changed. It was then that we first began to understand that in the process of trying to help other people, we were the ones getting the big benefit.
By the end of that trip, there was no need to convince anyone about what would happen next. People were asking us, "When are we going to Kosovo?" The Kosovars even saved some of the spending money we had given them, and when they returned it to Ric they said, "This is for your trip to Kosovo."
The next summer we took 32 people from Muscatine (half adults, half kids) to Gjakova. It was a fantastic trip. We sang, did health and eye clinics, art classes, and more. More about it on this blog.
The summer of 2006 we again hosted a dozen kids from Liz's program in Muscatine (more here). During all this we also began an exchange program to bring students from Liz's program to study here. Erza and Bujeta came to Muscatine High School as Rotary exchange students. They later graduated from Muscatine Community Colege (MCC) with many honors and awards. Erza went on to BYU-Idaho, and Bujeta studies at Loyola.
Nita and Kaltrina came here as Rotary high school students and then also graduated from MCC with many honors and awards. Both will attend Cornell College in Iowa.
Lum was a Rotary high school student here for the 2007-08 school year. We brought Ali here for one year at MCC. And Zana and Perparim were Rotary exchange students for the 2008-09 school year at Muscatine High School.
In the summer of 2008 we took 37 youth and adults back to Kosovo for another music and service trip. (2008 blog here. Twitter updates here.)
All in all, this has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I love working with the kids in Liz's program. I am especially grateful for the amazing group of people I have become entwined with in the Muscatine side of this effort. And the whole thing has given my family some incredible, enriching, life-changing memories.
See the project Web site.