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Music has always been a beautiful way of bringing healing to the world, but Play It Forward Polk has taken that mission a step further with their philanthropic movement to aid kids in the community who can’t afford instruments. Learn about where their story as a nonprofit organization all began and how they are encouraging the youth in the public school system to not let circumstance define their ability to play.

Event Photos by David Dickey

To what do we attribute our appreciation of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro or Aerosmith’s “Dream On”? They are both timeless anthems of their day whose legacy and rhythms have impacted what we know to be good music. The beat count of a meaningful lyric or the chord progression found during the bridge of a soulful ballad — all elements affecting our day-to-day beautifully as they inspire us through their detail in emotion. Every minute that passes within an orchestration of our favorite song represents countless hours of rigorous practice and passionate dedication from a determined musician — someone who never gave up on the story they had to share with us through melody.

I’ll never forget the excitement of strumming my first guitar during my middle school recital and singing for the first time on stage at the historic auditorium at Evangel Christian School in the ’90s. There is an invigorating feeling that happens when a human creates music from a vulnerable place and from a practiced knowledge imparted from surrounding mentors. It illuminates our world with a message to be heard and allows for our hearts to connect with the emotions that are being conveyed by a musician.

But what would have happened if the musical icons of our day never had the opportunity to play an instrument because of a financial lack? As former musical artists or avid supporters of the craft, Play It Forward Polk created a beautiful solution in our community so that no one would have to face the disappointment of wanting to play without an ability to afford an instrument.

But what would have happened if the musical icons of our day never had the opportunity to play an instrument because of a financial lack?

Ohio native Tommy Butch moved to Lakeland with the dream of curating community amongst fellow, talented musicians. Carrying professional experience in saxophone, trumpet, and vocal performance, he started playing at local bars and restaurants to meet other like-minded artists who would join him for “one giant jam session,” as he calls it. Tommy wanted it to mean something more for the greater Polk community.

During his time back home in Columbus, Ohio, he recalled attending a school that had run-down instruments that students could play. No one had cared enough to replace the instruments with new ones, and this stood out to Butch. “There were so many kids who wanted to play, but they lacked the instruments or materials and couldn’t afford them,” he recalls. This memory would only become the catalyst for Play It Forward Polk and the sole mission of these community benefit concerts. He immediately began to partner with former local musician Brian Everhart to recruit bands and vocalists to join the cause and to help aid funding for children in the Polk County School System.

Play It Forward’s annual benefit concert is held at The Polk Theatre and raises money for students in Polk County public schools.

As the organization began to grow its team of board members, former Lakeland Electric worker and music lover Ron Tomlin was voted in to serve as president and has since continued pioneering the philanthropic cause with nine others: Tim Calhoon, Marty Jones, Steve McCarter, Connie McCarter, Roi Cornish, Robin Fleming, Amanda Frankle-Brice, Pat Oldencamp, and Natalie Oldencamp. As a team, they’ve worked together in every capacity, from marketing to strategic partnerships, to bring awareness to the community for the children in our school systems who come from low-income households. Play It Forward Polk began as the vision of two men that evolved into a movement built on the strength and dedication of their board members, as they relentlessly work to advocate and to inspire children to dream big.

The Lakelander: What role do you play on the team, and what brought your team to start a nonprofit organization like Play It Forward?

Ron Tomlin: I currently serve as the president of the board for Play It Forward Polk. It was started around four-and-a-half years ago in the spring of 2014. Friends and former members of our board, Brian Everhart and Tommy Butch, were two local musicians who had the desire to recruit other local musicians for one big jam session in hopes of raising money for new instruments to be distributed to students in the Polk County School System. The initial target has always been children in the community who come from low-income households or who have a severe financial struggle but have a passion for learning an instrument. [Everhart and Butch] then decided it was time to do more than just a jam session. Eventually, when the board was created, we started hosting several benefit concerts and events in the community of Lakeland and other surrounding cities to raise more funding for instruments donations to the Polk Education Foundation.

Other events Play It Forward hosted have included a benefit concert at Fresco’s Speakeasy lounge.
A COMMUNITY RESPONSE

TL: Our community is familiar with your Polk Theatre event held annually, but what are more events that you host in addition to this where the community has shown authentic support?

RT: It’s amazing to me how the community has stepped in to help. Our signature event is the Play It Forward Polk celebration that is held every year at The Polk Theatre. This night is very special and meaningful for students who have always wanted an opportunity to perform with their donated instrument but have never had the platform. It’s important for youngsters to have a platform to play. My heart is simply in promoting it.

“We never want a child to feel incapable of getting an instrument in their hands due to financial struggles.”

Other events we’ve hosted have included a benefit concert at Fresco’s Speakeasy lounge. Our board members help work these events, and for example, they were the bartenders of the night for tips, which brought in around $3,600 we were able to use for instrument purchasing. We’ve partnered with several other local businesses and music groups to raise funding through event production. As well, we have received direct instrument donations that range anywhere from an acoustic guitar to a viola. The majority of charity donations we’ve been blessed to receive have been from Publix Charities, GiveWell, and other local philanthropists. As a nonprofit organization, we’ve been able to donate over $100,000 since we began four years ago.

TL: Music is a powerful tool that can bring so much healing to both the player and the listener. What is an example of how you’ve watched Play It Forward impact the greater Polk community?

RT: The program that we put on at the Polk Theatre has involved more student musicians than local musicians, and that in itself has impacted us the most. It’s always such a blessing to watch kids pour out their hearts through songs they’ve learned using our donated instruments. I once went to a Christmas concert at Bartow Middle School, and at one moment, the band instructor had students stand who had received donations from our organization, Play It Forward Polk. It really helped us to view the difference we’re making with our own eyes.

Music to me is such a critical part of a child’s development. In the life of a kid, it teaches them practical things like arithmetic, reading, and writing. In addition, it’s teaching them how to engage with what they’re feeling, and it creates in them a well-rounded person.”

THE PASSION TO LEAVE A MUSICAL LEGACY

TL: How would you describe the heart behind the mission, and how does this mission collaborate with our Polk School Board?

RT: We are dedicated to celebrating live music in this community, and we’re all about celebrating the kids who have dreams to be a music artist. We never want a child to feel incapable of getting an instrument in their hands due to financial struggles.

Play It Forward Polk began as the vision of two men that evolved into a movement built on the strength and dedication of their board members, as they relentlessly work to advocate and to inspire children to dream big.

Years ago, we sat down with Beth Cummings, the director of fine arts for Polk School Board, and expressed our desire to help the kids who can’t afford to buy an instrument to learn the art of music. We began donating resources to the Polk Education Foundation while Cummings utilizes the aid to help students that are nominated by local band directors from all Polk County Schools. To honor confidentiality and privacy, no names are involved. It’s a simple project request that reflects the classrooms’ need according to what students are enrolled in the band directors’ classes. The investment is made on the students who have displayed an interest in picking up an instrument to learn. While the instruments stay with the designated school, children are still being given the opportunity to sharpen their skills during their class time. Kids are typically given this chance as early as the fifth grade.

TL: What would you say to someone who has never played an instrument or perhaps has given up on music somewhere along the way and would like to get back into it?

RT: Go for it! Music is a critical part of anyone’s life. There will always be people available to help you along the way. It’s such a neat way to express yourself and a great outlet to release stress and relax. Some of our bands in the surrounding community will even take you under their wing to teach you what you need to know. If it’s in your heart, go for it.

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