Changing the world with music

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Liz Shropshire was going to have a "me" vacation in 1999 by backpacking through Europe; instead, she decided to change her life's direction, and the lives of some 10,000 children.

While listening to the radio, Shropshire heard about the Albanian refugee camps in Kosovo, a country hit hard by the ethnic cleansing campaign of Siberian forces in 1998-99. It made her re-examine her life.

"I felt like my life was very self-centered," said Shropshire, who was a composer and music teacher living in Los Angeles at the time of her epiphany. "So I started looking for something I could do with my life."

Gone were her backpacking plans, replaced by thoughts of how she could volunteer in Kosovo.

Eventually, friends convinced her to take music to the war-torn land. Through donations and the emptying of her savings account, Shropshire headed to Gjakove - a Kosovo town filled with Albanian refugee camps - armed with $5,000 worth of musical instruments.

The highly educated musician took with her mainly penny whistles and harmonicas.

"I wanted them to have something small enough to put in their pockets," she explained from her Litchfield Park home.

She taught children in a refugee camp of about 350 people (of whom only three were men) as well as at local schools, how to play the instruments on that first trip.

"I thought the instruments would be the big thing, but it was the fact that I was there," Shropshire said. "I fell in love with these people who were so grateful to be alive.

"When I told them I was leaving after six weeks, the children started to cry. 'You can't go; nobody is doing anything for us,' they said. I promised them I would return."

She more than kept her promise, forming the Shropshire Music Foundation the following year, which has gone on to teach music to more than 10,000 children in such war-torn lands as Kosovo, Uganda and Northern Ireland.

The staple instruments of SMF are the penny whistle and harmonica, though programs have also used drums, guitars, ukuleles and singing.

After that first trip, she knew the foundation was something that needed to be established.

"Within three days of getting into Kosovo, I knew this is what I wanted to do with my life," the 50-year-old said. "I couldn't go back to my me-centered life.

"These kids had no control over anything in their life," she recalled. "So we give them these instruments [to control], and the great thing about these instruments, they sound good the first time you pick them up."

Kosovo kids
Erblina Vokshi can attest to that.

The 25-year-old West Palm Beach, Fla.-resident was 12 years old and living in Kosovo when she first met Shropshire in 1999.

"She started teaching and I approached her and asked her if she needed help translating," she recalled.

Vokshi didn't realize it at the time, but she was instrumental in developing the structure for Shropshire Music Foundation.

SMF uses local teenagers as volunteer teachers. Most of the time, children progress through SMF classes and as they get older are trained to be the teachers, Shropshire said.

The foundation taught children in Kosovo camps through 2003 - SMF classes are still in the schools there - and every teenager who volunteered for Shropshire in those first five years has gone on to college, she said.

"They are all off in college or graduated by now," Shropshire said of her first batch of volunteers. "And of the kids who stayed in the music program, 100 percent had gone on to high school and all but one went on to college. In an environment where only 60 percent of the children go to high school, that is amazing to me. Seeing that music can change the world is an eye-opening experience for me."

Music and Shropshire definitely changed Vokshi's world.

"She really helped me become a better leader and be involved with the kids," Vokshi told the View via a telephone interview.

Working for Shropshire helped Vokshi become more responsible and "improved my [English] language," she said.

All the newfound skills paid off for Vokshi when she came to America for a better education, she said.

After graduating from Northern Arizona University, and then graduate school at Arizona State University, Vokshi is now a civil engineer in Florida.

"After the war, not much was going on for children our age," Vokshi recalled. "She was one of the first to come and do something for us, and not just to teach her music, but entertain."

Vokshi needed some entertainment after her war experiences.

"We had to move all the time," she said. "A lot of people migrated and lived in camps, we decided to stay there; it was very dangerous."

Rich Ott
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