Pembroke Pines man's program wins a Knight Arts Challenge grant

A music show that started out as an after-school Miramar program is now a winner of a Knight Arts Challenge grant.

A group of children participated in a 10-week program to learn percussion instruments under the tutelage of Willie Stewart, a drummer who spent 23 years playing with the reggae band Third World. While some of Stewart's students had previous experience with music, others had never picked up an instrument before. Their efforts culminated in the Rhythms of Africa show in February at the Miramar Cultural Center.

"It was so successful last time, but it probably ran a little too long," Stewart said.

Not long after completing the show, Stewart said he received a suggestion from Steven Klotz, the cultural center's fundraising manager, to apply for the 2010 Knight Arts Challenge. The yearly challenge, sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, has three basic requirements: the project must be about art, take place in and benefit South Florida, and a winner must provide matching funds for the grant.

"We've gone to the community at large and said 'give us your best art ideas,'" said Dennis Scholl, a foundation vice president and Miami program director. "You don't have to be a nonprofit or a 501(c)(3) [tax exempt organization]."

Scholl said 945 entries from across South Florida poured in for the 2010 challenge. The first stage is to describe your project in 150 words or less. The initial 945 entries were narrowed to 45 finalists, who were then required to submit more detailed proposals about how they would run their projects and raise matching funds for the foundation's grant.

Stewart was surprised to learn he'd been selected as a finalist.

"I was shocked," he said. "I knew we had a good program and knew that it worked."

Stewart's Rhythms of Africa survived the finalist stage and was selected as one of 27 winners that were awarded a total of $3.8 million by the Knight Foundation. Stewart was awarded a $25,000 grant and has one year to come up with matching funds. Scholl doesn't expect that to be a problem, given the project's appeal.

"Percussion is really a wonderful portal for kids into the music world," Scholl said. "The best ideas are the ones that are very specific, very thoughtful."

Stewart has kept busy by running a music school out of his Pembroke Pines home. Now that he has his grant from the Knight Foundation, he plans to stage another Rhythms of Africa show in October 2011 at Fort Lauderdale's Parker Playhouse. The show will follow a seven-week learning program.

Given the state of the economy and the resulting reduced philanthropy from many sources, Stewart said the grant was essential in moving his program forward.

"The arts are being cut like a butcher," he said. "Music is an important part of the development of the whole child."

or http://www.solutionsinmusic.com.

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