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Making music to make a difference

For Lisa O’Keefe, the soldier’s e-mail came from out of the blue. He wrote the teacher last year telling her how much he loved her music class at Gulfside Elementary School in Holiday, Fla. He wanted O’Keefe to know that he still remembered playing the part of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in her chorus. That memory—along with other good times in her class—had come to mind while he was serving a second tour of duty in Iraq.

Lisa OKeefe

Lisa O'Keefe (at right) is applauded by the students and principal at Gulfside Elementary School.

O’Keefe was so touched by the e-mail that she shared it with her students during a Veterans Day assembly. It was “inspiration for the kids here,” she says. They see that former students “are still in touch with you” and that “they go on and become successful.”

In her 23 years at Gulfside, O’Keefe has made an impression on many young people. She teaches music to every one of the 600 students enrolled in the high-poverty school. Students take a 40-minute class with O’Keefe twice a week. Nearly 80 students in grades 4 and 5 participate in her chorus. The group performs annual winter and spring concerts at the school and also sings at local nursing homes. “The seniors love it,” she says. “They’re just so thrilled to see the children.”

Music has long been part of O’Keefe’s life. At age 5, she began taking piano lessons from her godmother and at 17 started giving lessons herself. After graduating from college with a degree in music education, she began teaching.

At Gulfside, O’Keefe exposes students to a range of music and artists: jazz, the Beatles, Beethoven. Rachel Trotta, who attended Gulfside more than 20 years ago, praises her for making learning fun. She still remembers when O’Keefe taught “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel after the song’s release in 1989. “We had to look up the words” and “what they meant,” Trotta recalls. “That was my favorite thing,” Her daughter, a fourth-grader at Gulfside, did the same lesson with O’Keefe last summer during a music camp at the school.

O’Keefe teaches third-grade students how to play the recorder and read basic notes. “The goal is by the time they’re in fifth grade, they can at least play simple melodies,” she says. O’Keefe teaches the recorder because many of her students’ families are low-income and can afford the instrument, which sells for a few dollars.

When students who are interested in music can’t afford instruments, O’Keefe steps in to help. For instance, she recently gave a donated keyboard to a fifth-grader who has shown great potential in playing the piano. The student is being raised by her grandmother, who doesn’t have much money. But the girl “literally dreams and sleeps piano,” O’Keefe says. “Her grandmother says she puts [the keyboard] in her bunk bed at night so she can wake up and play it.”

O’Keefe is grateful that the student now has an instrument on which to practice her skills. “If I can just touch one life and make it better,” she says, “that’s what it’s all about.”