BURLEY • Mini-Cassia youth are reaping the benefits of learning to play an instrument while having a safe place where they feel like they belong on Saturday afternoons.

Marcus Meek has opened the doors to his guitar shop to kids and teens who are underprivileged or struggling to stay out of trouble.

Meek’s program, “Mentoring through Music,” gives children a free guitar and music lessons taught by him or one of his former students.

“Marcus is very, very generous with these kids. A fine mentor,” said Mick Hodges, a Cassia County magistrate judge who handles cases involving juveniles who have a brush with the law. “He has taken this on as his personal ministry and the troubled kids of the area are enjoying a wonderful benefit.”

If more adults cared for children like Meek does, Hodges said, the community would be a better place.

John Crawford, pastor of the Apostolic House of Prayer, said his church donated $250 to the program, enough for five guitars for the students.

“This gives these kids a sense of purpose, something to take with them that will be valuable down the road,” Crawford said. “This could be life-changing for them.”

Meek has also done countless benefits in the community to raise money for people who were ill or for other charity causes, Crawford said.

The shop has given away another 10 guitars and some of Meek’s students have donated guitars since the program launched a couple of months ago.

Meek’s students Joel, Cole and Jaden Orban gave up their own Christmas presents this year in order to donate money for guitars to give away.

Joel and Cole both teach lessons during the Saturday program.

Joel Orban said he already had “enough stuff” and he liked the idea of donating the guitars.

“Coming here gives these guys a sense of stability,” he said, and there is always something new to learn.

“There are so many things in life that we can’t control,” Joel said. “But we can control our music.”

Taleana Inness, 10, has Asperger’s Syndrome and struggles to fit in at school.

Her mother, Becky Wilson, brought her to the shop for some drum lessons, which Orban provided.

“This is her first lesson and she’s already learning drum rolls,” Wilson said. “I’m very impressed. I’m hoping that music gives her something to feel good about.”

A few of the children who receive guitars never come back for lessons, Meek said, but they are always welcome.

His inspiration for the program is 14-year-old Elijah Gage. Meek became Gage’s guardian when the boy was 12. At the time, Gage had been in trouble with the law for half of his life.

“He hasn’t been in trouble since,” Meek said.

Gage has high hopes for the future, including running as part of an Olympic team and some day owning Meek’s guitar shop.

Meek hopes that with community support he can take the program to the next level.

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His next step is filling out paperwork for non-profit status for the program.

Eventually he would like the program to evolve into a youth diversionary program. Juvenile probation uses diversionary programs to help refocus teens and keep them out of trouble.

Trial Court Administrator Shelli Tubbs said there are only a few diversion programs in the 5th Judicial District and they tend to be county-specific. Judges do not recommend them, but rather they are recommended by the juvenile probation departments or the county prosecutors.

Meek would likely have to sign a contract with the counties and be required to provide appropriate insurance and other “assurances” so the counties would be protected, Judge Hodges said.

“I want to provide a place were kids on probation can come and we can show them a better way to do things,” Meek said.

Along with the benefits of the music lessons, Meek lends a friendly ear. “A kind gesture” is often enough to make a true difference for these children.

“This is a place where the kids can come if they are having a bad time at home,” Elijah Gage said. “A place where they can be happy.”

The kindness tends to get passed on.

Gage said he is trying to pass Meek’s kindness forward by mentoring his younger brother, Pedro Martinez, 10.

“I’m trying to teach him the stuff that Marcus has taught me,” Gage said.

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