Colin Ford started teaching himself to play guitar when he was seven years old, after his father, an experienced guitarist, gave him his first guitar.
“One of the things about teaching yourself is that you hit a lot of speed bumps,” says the Media Programs Facilitator of Directions Youth Services Centre—a centre for homeless youth in the heart of downtown Vancouver, operated by Family Services of Greater Vancouver.
Now, when he teaches youth how to play guitar, he teaches the “why,” not just the “how.” The upside of learning on your own is that “you know how to tell people what not to do,” he laughs.
Colin’s diverse music career includes playing in bands since the age of 17, studying classical composition, and working in the professional music business in L.A. But it was his retail job as floor manager at a Vancouver music store that set off the spark to volunteer with young people.
Almost every day, Colin would see homeless youth come onto the guitar floor at the store, he explains. He knew many of them couldn’t afford the guitars they picked up, but he sat down with them anyway and showed them how to play a few chords. In short order, he found himself with a group of youth coming in for free lessons every week.
“The grin that came over their faces was incredible,” he says. “They came in hardened and tough, but the kid kind of shone through after a few minutes of playing guitar.”
“After one hour of doing that I thought, ‘This is what I’m going to do and how I’m going to give back.'”
In 2005, Colin connected with Directions Youth Services Centre and began volunteering weekly “with two guitars
and myself in an empty room,” he says. Youth would come into the room out of curiosity and then just stay to chat. “It just kind of built up over time. I did a couple of benefits and held festivals to raise money for Directions. Got a few more guitars and a recording machine. I found a back room and made it a permanent music room — then they started coming in droves.”
What the staff at Directions found, was that Colin’s program would be the driving force to get these youth into the centre, trust would begin to form, and staff would begin to slowly be able to work with them to establish a plan to figure out what they needed in order to be able to transition away from life on the streets.
Many of the youth under 25 that come to Directions have been told they can’t accomplish anything, Colin says. They’re from diverse backgrounds, but many arrive with feelings that they’re not good enough and they don’t fit in, he says.
“It’s not up to me to judge where they’re coming from,” explains Colin. “My goal is to find out what they’re interested in and to start stoking the fire.”
Over time, the music room changed many youth’s perception of themselves, showing them how much they could achieve. Seeing that really got him hooked, he says.
“Kids would walk in unsure, and walk out with a song.” Since it opened, the music room has given many youth a new openness and a hunger to try new things, says Colin.
Recognizing the enormous value Colin’s program brought to the centre, Directions was able to find funding to hire Colin part6time, Now, Colin is in the recording room two days a week, and it’s always booked solid.
As Directions has expanded, Colin has started up other projects, including running the website Another Slice where youth share their music, poetry and writing, organizing youth performances, and running a film program where youth can share their experiences. Producing a new webstream radio show for youth is his latest undertaking.
“I’m giving them as many ways to express themselves as possible,” he explains.
“I’ve never met so many people in my life that are so talented. Every day I go in and I’m blown away,” says Colin. “I just open the doors and show them how things work. They’re the ones creating the magic.”
Learn more about the music room and other Directions programs on the Another Slice website.
Watch the first Directions video series, profiling the lives of homeless youth, at inourshoes.ca.
Watch films in the second series of films by Directions youth through UBC’s iTunes U account. Find it through iTunes, UBC, or AnotherSlice.ca.
Contributing writer: Stephanie Orford