Campaign is music to Weequahic High marching band’s ears

Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger | Email the author | Follow on Twitter

The pep rally on Friday wasn’t for the football team. The season has already ended. And it wasn’t for the basketball team, either, even though its first game is just days away.

This midday celebration was for Newark’s Weequahic High School marching band, which was led into the gymnasium by the fire department’s Pipes and Drums band.

“I feel appreciated,” said Aryc Cuello, a 15-year-old sophomore who plays the bass drum. “I feel like people finally care about us.”

The band learned that the city’s fire and police departments, and the office of emergency management are joining a $30,000 fundraising campaign to help them get new uniforms and replace worn-out instruments.

All of this started after I wrote a column last month about the band. The football season was seven games in and the band had not not yet performed on the field because their instruments were in disrepair and there weren’t enough orange hoodie sweatshirts and brown sweatpants for the members to wear. This attire, some of it faded, has been the kids uniforms for the past five years after the actual band uniforms fell apart.

But despite their situation, the young people still wanted to play, encouraged by Darryl Taylor, the assistant band director who has been volunteering to teach the kids how to do so for 28 years.

Many of the band members were recruited by Taylor, some while they were still in elementary school. The students – most are from charter schools without a band program – show up faithfully after school at 4 p.m. every day and practice for two hours. They could have quit, but they didn’t. They see themselves as a family and no one lets members’ bail on the group, even if they felt like leaving.

It’s a good thing they stayed.

Myra Lawson, executive director of the Weequahic High School Alumni Association, said graduates have been calling and giving money after reading the story.

“They were horrified,” Lawson said.

Since then, $6,000 in donations has rolled in.

“It’s been heartwarming because our kids feel the stress of budget cuts around the arts and after-school and cultural programs,” Lawson said.

Readers also called, wanting to know how they could help. Many were directed to Taylor, who was a Weequahic band member during the 1980s.

He’s been the glue for the current band, helping director Michael Page keep the students focused on music, reminding them to be appreciative of the support coming their way. Taylor said his cellphone hasn’t stopped ringing. One reader, he said, purchased $3,000 worth of new drum equipment and had it delivered to the school.

“They (students) have yet to experience what it’s like to have on real uniforms,” Taylor said. ” We want them to experience it.”

Momentum for the band campaign received its biggest boost when Newark’s fire department pledged to get involved with four fundraisers. One of its employees, Patricia Bradford, a program development specialist in community relations, got things moving because the band’s troubles resonated with her.

In the 1980s, Bradford said West Side High School had the same problem when her kids were band members. She helped raise funds back then, and even though she’s not a Weequahic graduate, Bradford said she wanted to do something for those students.

“I couldn’t let it go and not try to do something,” Bradford said. “I have love for children and life.”

All of this fuss has the students giddy, smiling and relieved that someone is finally recognizing them.

“We’ve been working so hard,” said Stephon Waddell, 16, who plays the trumpet. “Usually, the band doesn’t get this much attention.”

The spotlight was on them twice Friday. There was the pep rally to start and producers from “The Meredith Vieira Show” were at the school all day to do a story about the band and the dedication of its directors, Taylor and Page.

Surprised. Wowed. Shocked. That’s how they’re feeling right about now.

This past weekend, the fire department pitched in with the first fundraiser. Four engine companies hit the streets collecting money from motorists in fire boots. You may have seen them on McCarter Highway and Murray Street, Route 280 and First Street, Springfield Avenue and Irvine Turner Boulevard, and Broad Street and Raymond Boulevard.

“Anything you can do to help a kid is a home run,” said Fire Chief John Centanni.

After the pep rally, the band retreated to the band room, where some of them continued to play, not letting up. They were singing and playing drums. One of them was on the tuba, blowing hard. The dancers practiced dance steps.

This is what they do. They play with Indian – the school’s mascot – pride, making as much musical noise as they possibly can, even though they didn’t think anyone was listening.

Somebody heard them and that’s why good things are happening.

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