When Finest Meridor was 11 years old, he was reserved and felt like he had nothing to do during his free time.
Now 18, Meridor is a member of the drama club and vice president of the engineering club at North Miami High School, and handles music production of a band that performs at ArtWalk in Wynwood.
Meridor said he thanks Guitars Over Guns, a nonprofit organization that helps at-risk youth through the arts, for making him be more social and “livelier” because of their program. He is an alumni who volunteers at the organization and has been involved for six years.
“I felt like [Guitars Over Guns] would benefit me because I could learn how to play instruments and learn about the music industry,” Meridor said. “I’m still an introvert, but now I can express myself as an artist and as a human being.”
Guitars Over Guns, launched in 2008, recently expanded its curriculums to include visual and performing arts programs.
Chad Bernstein, co-founder and CEO, said the organization’s mission is to combine mentorship and artistic education for at-risk youth in underserved communities in Miami.
“[Guitars Over Guns] is unique because it pairs professional artists with experience to mentor [the youth] through a creative medium,” Bernstein said. “They build a creative relationship where students are supported holistically – in education and in life.”
Carolina Padilla, art mentor at Guitars Over Guns, started her career as an apprentice at a tattoo shop and is influenced by street art.
She said the new programs will allow children to express their feelings in other forms of art rather than just music.
“These middle schools do not have art and music programs,” Padilla said. “Art is a way for them to unleash stress and also an outlet for any human being, especially because some of these kids are bullied.”
Padilla said the art sessions last between an hour and an hour and a half.
The sessions involve more than working hard in artistic projects. She said the students can just hang out and talk about things they want.
“I want it to be a comfortable atmosphere,” Padilla said. “They are not in school or class. This is a space where we can talk, be creative and have fun.”
Sierra Shaw, 19, first experienced Guitars Over Guns when she was 17 and got involved because her little sister went to North Miami Middle School, where she met Bernstein.
Shaw is a rap mentor and helps students learn how to free write and listen to beats, among other things.
“I want the kids to learn what they want to learn,” Shaw said. “I want them to be honest with themselves when they rap or write poetry because it is all about expression and being yourself.”
Jono De Leon, the organization’s COO, said roughly 20 students have enrolled in the visual and performing arts programs since it became available in early October.
The organization’s programs are small to keep the sessions intimate.
“We want to grow and expand [Guitars Over Guns], but not beyond quality programming,” De Leon said. “It’s a small group mentality.”
De Leon oversees Guitars Over Guns’ programs — three in Miami and two in Chicago. Since 2008, the organization has mentored more than 240 students.
He said the organization helps students deal with hardships and learn important habits.
“The arts are an important catalyst for being challenged,” De Leon said. “They learn how to collaborate and work hard to learn something, like how to play an instrument.”
De Leon also said the programs are geared to help students not only learn artistically but also build confidence.
“A lot of these kids come from difficult, challenging home environments,” De Leon said. “They need to be challenged and supported in something new and positive. This organization creates moments for each kid when they figure out that if they work hard for it. Everyone can be artistic. And now, it is beyond just music.”