SWAN – Changing Lives One Class At A Time

Featured Story – 1st Place

– By Ann Mead Ash, Engle Publishing Company

About a decade ago, Diana Vuolo, founder/executive director of SWAN (Scaling Walls A Note at a Time), was an empty nester. A professional violinist and music teacher, she listened as her husband, Chuck, a pastor, described the trauma suffered by the children of the incarcerated offenders he was working with.

“My husband was doing a lot of pastoring with criminal offenders, and I was starting to see the families up close and seeing how devastating parental incarceration was for children,” said Diana, who asked herself what she could do to help. “I thought music would be a great way to help them, and that’s what I had to give. I saw (music) was healing for them (and helped them) to realize they weren’t the only ones (struggling with this issue).”

The result was SWAN, a one-hour after-school music program for School District of Lancaster (SDoL) students ages 6 to 18. Both group and private lessons are now held in 13 SDoL schools. SWAN also has a summer camp, which meets at the Wharton Business School in Lancaster.

“We give the children 120 hours of instruction during camp,” said Diana, who noted that once the SDoL recognized the need for the program, SWAN was welcomed into the schools. “The district is becoming more trauma informed and trauma aware,” said Diana, who added that recent state laws will require teachers to become more trauma informed. Currently, SWAN receives referrals of students whose parents have a history of incarceration from intervention specialists and family counselors who work for the district.

Each Tuesday at 3 p.m., Lauren Reyes, a SWAN music educator, meets with about 10 students at Wickersham Elementary. Her hour with the group includes singing and working with instruments such as hand drums, drumline instruments, guitars, and ukuleles. “What Lauren is bringing this year is a program that uses melody and percussion along with singing,” said Diana.
Reyes said that she wants to promote improvisation and collaboration to encourage students to create. “I try to get a good community working together,” she said, noting that the approach she uses is multicultural.

Anny, a fifth-grade Wickersham student who attends, said that she enjoys SWAN because she is with others who enjoy the same things she does. She also appreciates how participating in the musical program affects her outlook. “I like that music can change your mood,” she said. “If someone is sad, music can brighten up their day.”

Willow, who is in first grade, called SWAN “a magical place.” “I have always liked music, and I like to be in programs,” said Willow, who listed a number of instruments she has had a chance to play through SWAN.

Willow added that she likes to perform, even though she may be a little nervous to start. “After I perform, I feel happy and I am ready to enjoy the rest of my day and think about this wonderful memory,” she said. “It makes me feel confident and gives me courage.”

Diana explained that performance is an important part of the program, noting that participants perform for family, friends, and community members in settings like schools, nursing homes, and First Friday events.

One of SWAN’s first students is now helping to teach others. Bryanna Still, who is now a student at Dayspring Christian Academy, has dealt with a lot of trauma, but she has excelled musically. “She has made wonderful decisions,” said Diana of Bryanna, who assisted at the SWAN summer camp and won accolades from the instructors.

“We can help children with their behavior, physical, emotional, scholastic, and social issues if we understand what is going on in their lives,” said Diana. “Their present circumstances do not need to determine who they are or what they do.”

Readers who would like to learn more about SWAN may visit www.swan4kids.org.