“One person with an idea, and look what can happen!” said Karen Bralove. She could have been talking about herself, but she wasn’t. She was talking about a twelve-year-old boy named Nate.
Nate and Karen are two links in a long and winding chain that began with the reading of two totally different books, kicked in with a talk, and took flight with an idea that brought the joy of owning and playing the harmonica to nearly one hundred Haitian children some 1,500 miles away.
Our story begins in Nate’s sixth grade class, where, over the course of the school year, he and his fellow students read two books that would become ‘instrumental’ in Nate’s life.
The first, Frances Temple’s A Taste of Salt: A Story of Modern Haiti, is a novel, though its setting and many of its facts are all too real, bringing the country’s extreme poverty, hunger, and devastation to light.
The book spurred on Nate’s class to learn more about Haiti and life after the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake, which is where Karen Bralove enters our story.
When one of the faculty members at Nate’s school learned of the sixth graders’ interest in the Haiti, she asked Karen ─ a former acting teacher and colleague, if she would speak to the class about her volunteer work there.
Karen, a former teacher and freelance yoga instructor, had originally gone to Haiti in March 2014, along with a group of other volunteers, to teach yoga to some of the country’s neediest children as a way to alleviate stress.
Taking several of the children back to their orphanage after class one day, Bralove was “flabbergasted” by the conditions under which they lived.
The orphanage, which is located just outside of the port city of Port-au-Prince in the town of Larousse, is a hybrid of sorts: part orphanage/part home to Pasteur Mura, his wife Bernadette, and several of their 12 grown children and 17 grandchildren. Between the family and the orphans, it makes for a full house.
The pastor and his family do their best to provide modest shelter, says Ms. Bralove, but it is clearly not enough. Imagine if you will, close to 50 people and only two toilets ─ one inside, and one out ─ and the barest of provisions: a small bed, a modicum of food, a bit of clothing, and a toothbrush and toothpaste.
That first afternoon would change Karen Bralove’s life in ways she could have never imagined. She felt the need to do something for these children and the family that cared for them. And do something she did.
By the time Karen Bralove stood before Nate’s class, she had been to Haiti several times, bringing what she could along with her. With no dependable mail service to speak of on the island, whatever she brought had to be small enough and light enough to carry in her luggage. No TVs. No bicycles. No laptops or other items that are part and parcel of everyday life for so many children Nate’s age.
But good things come in small packages, with each visit making life a bit better for the children of Larousse. Paying her own travel and living expenses, Karen Bralove returned as often as she could, depending upon donations to help purchase the things she brought to the orphanage.
With each visit, she learned a little more about the children who lived there.
“Most of these kids have been abandoned,” she says, noting that while some of them are truly orphans, “others may have one parent who can’t afford to care for them because they have 10 or 12 other mouths to feed, or because they have to leave the city to gain work and can’t take them along. They may leave them at the orphanage temporarily while they’re gone, but most of the children have been abandoned, or have one living parent who comes once a year, or hasn’t visited in five.”
The second book that would play a part in our story was Echo, a 592-page novel by Pam Munoz Ryan: perhaps the only book to land on the New York Times Best Seller list with a harmonica-driven plot.
Echo follows one harmonica’s journey over the course of several years and continents, as it brings comfort, hope, courage and freedom to its owners ─ all of them children.
For Otto, a young lad lost in the woods in the book’s opening fable, it would be a source of happiness, and “euphoric well-being”. For a little girl named Eins, it held the promise of passing on one owner’s “strength, vision and knowledge” to the next. And for all of the children, the harmonica gave them a way to express themselves. Something they could carry with them during the best and worst of times. Something to call their own.
The book made a big enough impression on Nate that he went out and got himself a harmonica.
Which brings us to January 2017, when Nate, like many Jewish boys approaching their 13th birthday, was preparing for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah.
As part of that preparation, Nate was asked to put together a service project ─ something that would make a positive difference in the world. Such projects range from holding a bake sale to overseeing a pet adoption day, or visiting people in a hospital or nursing home.
As Nate thought about what he wanted to do for his project, he remembered the two books he had read over the past year, and the children of Larousse. Could a harmonica make a difference in the lives of these children─ children with only a handful of things to call their own? And if, as in Echo, one harmonica could make a difference in so many lives, what could fifty harmonicas do?
Determined to find out, Nate sent Karen Bralove an email asking if she thought his idea had merit (she did) and, if so, would she be interested and able to deliver the harmonicas to the children? She was, and would.
How many harmonicas would she need, he asked. “40,” she replied, adding that 50 would be even better, in that 50 would be enough to accommodate new arrivals, and take care of any loss or breakage that might occur over time.
Once Nate knew how many harmonicas he would need, he drafted a letter, which he sent out in the form of an email to anyone and everyone he thought might be able to help. One of those letters landed in Jason Jones’ email box at harmonica.com.
“Hello” it began. “My name is Nate, and I am twelve years old. I am emailing to see if you can help with my Bar Mitzvah project.
“I am having my Bar Mitzvah in March, and for my Bar Mitzvah project I want to help donate harmonicas to the Larousse Orphanage in Haiti…”
Nate’s email went on to explain how the idea behind the project came about, and what he hoped to achieve by giving each of these children a harmonica to call their own.
“Over the years, harmonicas have been used to lift the spirits of those who are down, like the orphans,” he continued. “Through my experience, I have learned that harmonicas are fun to play and easy to learn.
“I think it would be a great idea to introduce the children to music. The harmonicas will make the children in Haiti happy, and plant the seed of music into their lives…”
“His letter really touched my heart” says Mr. Jones, who is the Operations Director for harmonica.com. “I thought it was a wonderful harmonica charity idea, so I shared Nate’s email with JP Allen and the team. They were excited about the idea also.”
“We believed that it was definitely something we could make happen. And so, I started working out the details along with Nate and Karen.”
Nate’s dream was about to become a reality.
“I was excited when Karen told me that there was someone (Pasteur Mura) who could teach the kids how to play harmonica, what a bonus,” says Jones, adding, “but even the worst-case scenario – their just having fun and having something new for themselves – was worthwhile.”
Though the pastor was self-taught, he knew enough to get the children started. And when Mr. Jones learned that the orphanage had access to a DVD player, he also donated a set of harmonica.com’s Happy Harpin’ lesson DVDs for beginners.
“I knew that even if Pasteur Mura couldn’t understand the language, he could still get some tips on technique by watching the videos,” Jones explains.
Things were moving along. With the package on its way, Nate and his dad printed out the instructions on how to play the harmonica in English and French, using both sides of the paper “to save weight”. Why? “Because,” says Ms. Bralove, “when it comes to carrying everything in your luggage, every ounce counts.”
That was in January. Before the month was out, a package containing 50 Hohner Blues Band harmonicas for the children, plus an extra one for the pastor, and the aforementioned DVD set was on its way. By February, the children of the Larousse orphanage were making their own kind of music.
“It was pretty exciting,” says Nate, especially when several of the players he had written to wrote back to say that they too would like to participate in Nate’s Bar Mitzvah service project.
“We wound up with about 100 harmonicas,” says Nate. “My dad worked with someone who knew of another orphanage down there, and so we were able to help twice as many children.”
One boy. One dream. One harmonica for one child, times one hundred: a ‘mitzvah’ (a meritorious and charitable act), if there ever was one.
While most of them were written in the children’s native Haitian Creole, some were written in French, and there were a few letters in English – letters, photographs and videos Nate would share with harmonica.com and its readers.
Karen Bralove would help Nate translate the letters that weren’t in English, but there was no need to translate their delight as they picked up their new harmonicas and tried them on for size.
“You give 40 kids harmonicas, and they don’t know how to play, and they’re making a lot of noise and it still sounds great!” says Bralove, who was there the day they handed out the harmonicas, each in its own box, with the child’s name written on it, so that everyone would know whose harmonica it was. It was theirs. It was joy in a box.
And exactly how does joy sound? Says Ms. Bralove, “It sounds beautiful!”
The Haitian project was a wonderful experience for all involved, and harmonica.com hopes to take part in similar charitable projects in the future.
Speaking on behalf of harmonica.com, Jason Jones says, “One of the goals of our team is to continually have the harmonica bring joy into the lives of others, no matter where they live or their background.”
His words echo those found in the pages of Pam Munoz Ryan’s much –loved book:
“Music does not have a race or a disposition!” she writes, “… Every instrument has a voice that contributes. Music is a universal language… Music surpasses all distinctions between people.”
Today, life is a little sweeter for the children of Larousse, thanks to an abundance of generosity, kindness and hard work on the part of so many, all of them eager to help Nate make a difference.
As for Nate and his family, they are deservedly proud of what he was able to accomplish. His Bar Mitzvah took place in late March, but his efforts on behalf of the children of Larousse live on.
To learn more about the Larousse orphanage, its challenges and success stories, go to www.laroussehaiti.com.