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On this episode of Prepped & Polished Radio, I interview Sandra Rizkallah of Needham, Massachusetts-based non-profit Plugged In. Sandra shares with us her experiences and overall successes using music to help improve a child’s self-confidence and social consciousness.
Sandra has a degree in film and television from Emerson College; She has produced her own documentaries as well and has worked in the post-production department of NOVA and WBGH Public Television.
Full Word-for-Word Transcription
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Sandra, are you on the line?
Sandra: Yes, I am. Hello?
Alexis: How are you doing today?
Sandra: I’m good. How are you?
Alexis: I’m doing well. Thank you. Thanks so much for joining us.
Sandra: You’re welcome.
Alexis: Sandra, I see that you and I were both film majors in college.
What was the last really good movie you’ve seen?
Sandra: ‘Searching for Sugarman’.
Alexis: Did that come out recently?
Sandra: It came out in the summer and I was wanting to see it. Life was
crazy, and I never got a chance to. Then a couple weeks ago, I
went to the wonderful Coolidge Cornered cinema in Brookline.
It’s a beautiful movie, I loved it. I don’t know. Do you know
Alexis: No. I think I’ve heard of it, but I’m a little out of the loop.
I have to get back into film.
Sandra: It’s a music . . . it’s about a musician. It’s a documentary,
but it’s an amazing story. Very [inaudible: 03:22] . . .
Alexis: Wow. That sounds . . .
Sandra: . . . inspiring, yeah.
Alexis: Thanks for the tip. I appreciate that.
Sandra: No problem.
Alexis: Can you start off by telling us about what is Plugged In, and
how you came up with your program?
Sandra: Yes. Plugged In a nonprofit teen rock band program. What we do
is we put kids in bands. We group them by their age, their skill
level, their musical interest, their personality, and their
availability. They meet once a week with a teacher, with their
band for 1 1/2 hours. Each session lasts about 13 or 14 weeks. At
the end of each session, they have a concert. Their final
concert is a concert that raises money for one charitable
organization or cause that’s chosen by the student.
At the beginning of the term, we have an evening called
Community Engage, when the students get together, they pitch
different causes that are important to them, and talk about the
work they do and why they believe that we should raise money for
them. Then at the end of the evening, the kids vote and they
determine what they’re going to raise money for. Our program is
really putting the emphasis on using music to help others and on
compassion to others and themselves, and away from ego, stardom,
Alexis: What’s an example of one of the charity organizations that the
kids decided to go with?
Sandra: Let’s see. We had a bunch of different ones. We’ve had one for
the Aspergers Association of New England, had one for the Cystic
Fibrosis Foundation. We’ve had one for We Care Solar. We’ve had
Amnesty International. We’ve had the [inaudible: 05:00] Fund.
We’ve had all different local and international ones. It’s
really exciting because this is really, very [inaudible: 05:09],
that it’s determined by the kids. We don’t take input from
parents; we don’t put our own input in. For every term, we don’t
know where the kids are going to take us, what people are going
to need, and what things we’re going to learn about around the
One of the things we do too, is we get a lot of suggestions;
sometimes 20 suggestions from the kids. After every Community
Engage, we send an email out to our entire mailing list with all
the suggestions, with links to the websites of the
organizations. Then at the concert, we have all of them listed
on the program, because we may not be raising money for all of
them, but we want to let the kids feel that their suggestion is
at least bringing awareness to their organization that’s
important to them in our community.
Alexis: Wow. That’s great. That teaches them a lesson to not . . . just
because there’s one winner, it doesn’t mean that everybody can’t
be a part of it somehow.
Sandra: Absolutely. Yep.
Alexis: You talked a little bit about how you separate students into
different levels. I was just wondering, do you need to have a
music background or a natural music talent to be a part of
Sandra: Not at all. We have a number of students who have come with
very, very little experience. We are not an organization that is
putting a lot of pressure on the kids to be perfect; that’s not
the goal. The goal is really to be a team player, to gain
confidence, to make a difference in the world with something
that you love, like music. We have kids of all abilities. We
have some kids with disabilities. We have different functioning;
all different types of people. All the differences are
transcended because all the kids love music.
We find that really putting the emphasis on compassion really
ends up having a transformative effect, not only on the
atmosphere of Plugged In, but on the kids themselves. Because I
think what happens is they become more open, just open-hearted
and they make stronger connections with each other, and they
also feel more safe to take risks, musically. I think the result
is increased confidence, connection to the community, and they
feel empowered that they are making a difference in the world.
Really, it’s a very beautiful thing to watch and be part of.
Alexis: Wow. That’s great. When did Plugged In start? What are some of
the changes you’ve seen since the beginning to now?
Sandra: I think . . . my husband, Tom and I, he is an engineer at WGBH
and a musician; we started the program in 2002. We just had an
idea. I had some friends that had a theatre program and we were
actually on the beach in [inaudible: 08:12], and the idea came
popped into my head to do this. Tom and I had never had a
business or anything; we’ve never done anything like this
before. We basically just hung up flyers. The first band we had,
had 5 students in it. I think one of the really wonderful things
about Plugged In is that we are learning along with our
students. I always say to our students that we’re all perfectly
imperfect, that we aren’t a glossy machine. We’re learning as we
go along with our students. It’s been an amazing experience.
We’ve really gone out into the community and taken a lot of
workshops on nonprofit management and board development. We’re
very connected to the nonprofit community around us; any chance
that we can to learn, to connect with people, to get help. We
take the message that we give to our students, and we use it
with ourselves, which is that we try to the right thing, to get
it right, but if we don’t get it right, we try again. It’s
really proven to be really successful and the kids feel very . .
. there’s be a lot of positive reinforcement from the community,
from the schools, principals, guidance counselors, the Youth
Commission. We basically have had a number, number, number of
people tell us that our program saved their child’s life or
they’ve [inaudible: 09:40].
Sandra: A lot of times, the kids who are gifted in music or interested
in music . . . not all of them, but some, may not be naturally
doing well in school, academically or sports and they fall
through the cracks, and there’s nowhere for them to get
acknowledgement in the community. We pick these kids who may
really have been losing self-esteem and self-confidence in
school. They come to Plugged In, and it’s a place for them to
express the gift that they have, to be acknowledged in the
community, many community performances that we are invited to
and perform at. It helps them to feel really confident. I think
it ends up . . . there are some kids who are easy with
academics, but even for the ones that aren’t, once their
confidence grows, I think that that starts to have a positive
effect on their academics, as well.
Alexis: That really resonates with me, because I grew up in Needham. In
the 90’s, if you didn’t play sports, you went to the mall.
Alexis: I could just definitely see the benefits of having another
program that really helps empower kids, like a Plugged In.
That’s just awesome.
Sandra: One of our students, he said, “In Plugged In, I found my
people,” which I find sums it up as sweet. They’re very
grateful; they are very protective of Plugged In. The kids
really try hard to do the right thing, to make it as good as it
can be. They are so kind to each other, supportive, and loving.
The big kids help the little kids. The little kids . . . we have
kids as young as 8 and 9, and when they’re on stage, all the big
kids are in front cheering them on. It’s really beautiful. It’s
almost . . . sometimes in high school it’s not cool to be kind;
you have to put the hard shell around. In Plugged In, we’re
trying to teach that strength comes from kindness, and the more
you open up your heart, the stronger you are; it’s not a sign of
weakness. I think the kids get that at Plugged In. They really
feel safe being the true kind person they are.
Alexis: Wow. That’s powerful. For our listeners outside of
Massachusetts, are there programs that you know of like Plugged
In outside of the Massachusetts area?
Sandra: Are you asking me?
Alexis: Yeah, because I have no idea. I’m just saying if you’re in New
Hampshire. I don’t know. Have you . . . do you know?
Sandra: Yeah. There are definitely rock band programs all over. I would
think that, from what I know, there aren’t many that involve the
philanthropic charitable part of it.
Sandra: For us, we find that that is the most important part of our
Alexis: Yeah, because you do a lot with charities and giving back. I’m
not sure if our listeners know this, but my younger brother,
Nicholas, is a Plugged In alumni.
Sandra: And a teacher.
Alexis: And a teacher at Plugged In. Nick’s currently touring in a
successful metal band called Power Glove. Have you noticed a
little or a lot of former Plugged In kids taking their music to
the next level?
Sandra: Yeah. We have a number of students from the early days who have
come back, who have went to Berkeley College of Music or in the
music profession, and come back and teaching. Being 10-years-
old, we don’t have a huge alumni group, but there are those who
are pursuing . . . One thing that we do know is many, many, many
have taken the philanthropic part into and integrated into part
of their lives, whether in college or in their careers. We hear
back from kids a lot, that that’s something that they will take
with them forever. It’s part of who they are now.
Alexis: Absolutely. What are your future plans for Plugged In, going
into the [inaudible: 14:06] and beyond?
Sandra: We just moved to a new location . . .
Sandra: . . . which is very exciting for us. It’s probably, at least
double the size. Now we can offer private lessons and we’ll have
a recording studio. On a short-term, we’re really working to
build those programs and strengthen the infrastructure to
sustain that type of growth. Long-term, we have some very . . .
we want to do our summer camp more. Then we have some ideas of .
. . we have a lot of people that we’ve met along the years in
different parts of the world who run team youth music programs.
One of the ideas we have is having some program where we take
kids to these different countries and meet up with other people
who are using music for positive change, and have a cross-
cultural program. That’s a long-term, far-reaching one, but an
Alexis: Yeah. You got to dream big.
Sandra: Yes, we do. We have a list of goals. The ones that are a short-
term, realistic, and then we have the long ones. You keep moving
forward on both columns. We also want to figure out short-term,
more ways for the kids to be involved in the charities that they
choose. We want to have more programming for older students, 11
to 12th grade, and maybe have them give lessons to younger
students or students who can’t afford private lessons. We have a
lot of ideas.
Alexis: That’s fantastic. You guys also have an amazing website. I was
looking through it. I’m a big website guy, so I just love the
logo and the fun buttons. You learn about what Plugged In is by
Sandra: Yeah. I’ll have to put a plug-in for the Boston University
Center for Digital Imaging Arts, in Waltham. They have a
program, called the Practicum Program, where nonprofits apply,
and then the students choose which nonprofit they want to work
with. We got our website designed free from this program. It’s
an amazing website. We’ve had some promotional videos done by
them. If anyone out there’s looking for the nonprofits, wants to
apply to the BUCDIA, you should definitely look them up.
Alexis: Yeah, I’m in. I’m looking at this website. They’re the real
Sandra: It is.
Alexis: Are there any upcoming concerts, in case I don’t have any plans
or our listeners would like to attend one of these Plugged In
Sandra: Yes. We have a couple fundraisers coming up for Plugged In. We
have one on November 9th, in Needham, where a band called
[inaudible: 16:46], a very cool band, is performing. The bass
player there is a former teacher of ours. Trying to think of
some upcoming . . . our end-of-session concert is in January,
the weekend of Martin Luther King. We have a couple of other
performances, I think in Needham. When they light the tree in
Needham, our students are going to be performing there. You can
see it all on our website. I can’t remember the dates.
Alexis: Perfect. That sounds awesome. Thank you so much, Sandra. I
really appreciate you coming on and taking time to educate us on
Plugged In. Thank you.
Sandra: Thank you, as well. We love your organization. I think you’re
doing great work, and we love having Nick teaching at Plugged
In. He’s doing a great job.
Alexis: Good. All right.
Sandra: All right. Thanks, Alexis.
Alexis: You’re welcome.
Sandra: All right. Bye.
Alexis: Talk to you soon.
Sandra: All right. Bye-bye.
Alexis: This wraps up our show today, with Sandra Riscala of Plugged
In. Please visit PluggedInBand.com to learn more about Sandra’s
music program. If you care about the longevity of student music
empowerment programs such as Plugged In, I highly suggest making
a donation on their site, as well. Thank you for joining us on
The Prepped and Polished radio show.
How do music programs such as Plugged In help empower children? Do you have music programs such as Plugged In close to where you live ?
Post your tips/comments below.
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