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After-school program focusing on music strikes a chord with students

By BIANCA P. GALLEGOS, Register Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 26, 2005 3:10 AM PDT

Byllee Kairy, left, offers Aira Barragan a few tips on playing the guitar while leading his "After School of Rock" youth development program at Valley Oak. Barragan likes the class because it offers not only a place to hang out but a way to "express yourself by music." Jorgen Gulliksen/Register photos

Academics, music and rock & roll.

An unlikely trio? Not for Byllee Kairy. That's why the rocker turned teen advocate launched his "lifelong dream" this year in Napa, the After School of Rock.

"I've invested a ton of time and money into making this happen," said Kairy, a guitarist who is now teaching about 40 kids at Valley Oak High the basics of music and recording. The program offers a clear -- if loud -- alternative to kids who would probably not get involved with sports or other after-school programs.

Kairy has an idea of how to design such a program, he said, because "I was one of those kids."

Kairy, who grew up in Orange County, took a serious interest in music at age 13, when he was having a rough time.

Kairy recalls that one day, as he played his acoustic guitar on his front lawn, a big Latino guy approached him and said, 'Hey, you're good.'" This man, who Kairy knew only as Ezekiel, then played with him two to three time a week for three months.

The day Kairy's father came home early from work and got the chance to meet Ezekiel, he was taken aback.

"I remember my father's face when he met him," said Kairy. "He was like, 'Do you realize who you are playing with? It's Chris Montez, he is a famous rock star.'"

Montez was a singer who had a string of hits in the early 1960s, and even had the Beatles open one of his shows, before they became big. Kairy said his father owned Montez' records and had a collection of posters.

This memory always stuck with Kairy. Even though Montez was a celebrity, he took the time to hang out with a kid and teach him how to play guitar.

"The School of Rock was always my dream because when Chris took the time to do that for me I thought that was cool," said Kairy. Kairy started his first band at age 16. "At 17, I was filling up clubs, and by the time I was 18 I was on tour with pretty big bands in the '80s."

Kairy got the chance to open for a lot of bands and said that at one point his band, Phayze II, got to play before 60,000 people.

At that time, music paid for his apartment, car, everything. But when Kairy was 22, his band broke up and Kairy's life broke down.

"Because my band broke up, my apartment wasn't being paid for any more." said Kairy. "I didn't have any transportation anymore. I ended up being homeless overnight."

Kairy was homeless for more than a month and a half. It was difficult for him to get a job, he said, not because of personal problems, but because he simply didn't have any job skills.

Kairy said he found work one day helping clear a field in a dangerous part of Los Angeles, when he was jumped. "I got stabbed a couple of times and got set on fire, but managed to (put the fire out) by rolling over," he said.

That was a wake-up call, and he turned to his parents for help. He needed to come home and start all over again.

"I had to stop and think, 'What do I want to do with my life now?' I decided to volunteer with kids because I figured, 'OK, now that I've experienced how scary it can be to be in a world out there when you don't have a skill, maybe I can help other people avoid that,'" said Kairy.

He started on a new path, counseling suicidal and mentally ill kids for 11 years in group home residential treatment facilities.

Six years ago, Kairy moved to Napa and has spent a great deal of time working with local kids for existing organizations. Earlier this year, he decided he wanted to go his own way. Kairy partnered with the city of Napa through Greg Coleman, a recreation supervisor for the city.

"I was very taken by the idea," said Coleman. "I thought that was a fantastic flavor for an after-school program."

Coleman says the After School of Rock is a unique concept. For years many different agencies have tried to reach disaffected teens, but without a lot of success, he said.

"But they've never had a carrot dangling in from of them like they do now with the School of Rock," said Coleman. "This is the ultimate carrot to modify behavior of a difficult age group and keep it on a positive track. Byllee Kairy ... is the musical pied piper of Napa, he has a lot of charisma and the kids love him. And he's got a good message, he's got a solid, pure message that every parent would want their kid to hear."

The School of Rock meets once a week on Wednesdays in the cafeteria at Valley Oak Alternative High School.

The first thing discussed at every class is respect. Kairy said that's why the musicians bond as well as they do."If you hit a bad note or you just felt like trying something musically that's completely wacky, if people were to laugh and pick on you then you would never get a chance to take risks and grow," he said. "We would never have had Led Zeppelin, the Beatles or other amazing musicians and bands."

Aira Barragan, 17, said, "I think it's a great program. It's a cool place to hang out, a place where you can just go and be who you are and do what you like."

Barragan was getting guitar lessons at $130 a month, but she stopped taking the classes because it became a financial burden.

"It's hard to find places like these, either because we don't look for them or sometimes they are too expensive."

"It's probably the best after-school program to have," said Jenna Honsvick, 16. "My mom thinks it's great. She's happy I finally have something to do and appreciate, because I've never been into any sports or athletics."

Honsvick said music is soothing for her, it helps her vent and stay occupied.

Kairy is searching for more funding, and said he wants to build the program up so kids can write original music and take part in individual and band photo shoots. He wants them to learn how to use digital cameras and software to create their own CD art and record their own music.

He plans to issue a CD with the kids' songs next summer to benefit the program. He said he is working on having the bands earn a chance to play for local audiences through the Napa Musical Guild.

"I don't want to do the work for the kids," said Kairy. "But I want the kids to learn how to do it for themselves."

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