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Instrumental donation makes gift of music

A group of local people have joined the effort of a UW-River Falls student to gather donations that will help students in Selma, Ala., at schools where budget cuts have eliminated music and art programs. Left to right are Jen Burleigh-Bentz of Brickhouse Music, Camilla Horne of UW-River Falls' Music Department, benefactor Kyle Brokken and student Sara Fuller.1 / 3
UW-River Falls student Sara Fuller works with the non-profit Freedom Foundation helping expose kids to music and the arts, including a production company called the Random Acts of Theater Company (RATCO), comprised of all kids.2 / 3
Fuller says after several trips to Selma, Ala., she has formed close friendships with the young people involved in the non-profit theater company she goes there to help.3 / 3

UW-River Falls student Sara Fuller first traveled to Selma, Ala., for an alternative spring break, not realizing how significantly it would affect her or that she'd be heading up an effort to send them musical instruments.

She returned to help a few more times and has stayed "close" with people from The Freedom Foundation and one of its programs, the Random Acts of Theater Company -- or RATCo.

The nonprofit volunteer-driven organization defines its mission as cultivating the next generation through programs that "inspire and equip them to reach their full potential."

Fuller enthusiastically describes the RATCo productions -- plays and musicals and other shows -- for which kids do the work and adult volunteers from all over the country support them.

Fuller said the efforts expose kids to the disciplines that many of them won't experience due to school budget cuts eliminating music, theater, and other arts. Fuller works mostly with middle- and high-school age students, but the program supports kids in grades kindergarten through 12.

She said the productions give each child a chance to participate -- write, act, sing, dance, run lights.

Fuller said the kids gain much-needed confidence from fulfilling their production-related responsibilities, which may include everything from acting and sound production to accounting and publicity.

"It's such an impoverished area," the music student said, adding she was shocked by the lack of opportunity available to the young people in Selma.

Fuller wanted to help somehow so thought of trying to collect instruments for the kids to use at camp and for the theater productions. She talked to UWRF music professor Camilla Horne about it, especially the kids' lack of opportunity to learn about music.

Horne quickly recognized the reality of budget cuts and an unwavering focus on improving kids' math and reading skills.

"The thing about music is," said Horne, "it teaches both of those things."

Music legacy plays on

As Fuller described her wish for Selma -- one of many places the Freedom Foundation works -- Horne immediately thought of former UWRF music professor Dr. Hilree Hamilton, and her husband Kyle Brokken.

Hamilton taught music-education at UWRF for 12 years. When she died in 2011, she bequeathed estate funds to help students continue appreciating music.

Horne, who succeeded Hamilton, knew of her passion for teaching and said the professor would have fun introducing children to music, often at the university's preschool and CHILD Center.

"They called her the music lady," she said about Hamilton.

Brokken said as soon as he heard the story, he knew, "Yeah, this is something Hilree would want to support."

He remembers her doing an internship in Georgia shortly after they met and she'd finished her master's degree. He said the trip made a strong-and-lasting impression on her that she talked about for years afterward. It helped her understand a different society and realize the impact music and its lessons make.

Brokken said, "I thought this was something that would continue her legacy."

After Horne also committed funds to help with the overall donation, her mind went to who could help them find decent instruments at a good price.

"There was no other person (to call) besides Jen Burleigh-Bentz," said Horne.

One of the group's Selma contacts said many of the kids are interested in drums -- enamored by the percussion in the movie "Drumline" -- so the collection will include items such as drumsticks and drum pads. To help the kids learn other basics, the group will also buy and send tambourines, maracas, ukuleles, recorders, method books and sheet music.

Burleigh-Bentz said the recorder, a wind instrument, is a precursor to learning the flute, clarinet or bassoon, "It's a nice way to start introducing band instruments to students."

Learn more about the Freedom Foundation at its website:

Fuller, Horne, Brokken and Burleigh-Bentz welcome any monetary donations to help supplement the gift of instruments they'll be sending to Selma students. Anyone interested to give should contact Burleigh-Bentz via e-mail, with RATCo in the subject line, at

See the June 6 edition of the Journal for the complete story.