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Violin lessons offer escape for homeless girls

2 teens give back with lessons

BEVERLY — The girls dig their painted toenails into the playroom carpet and ready their bows on the strings.

“1. . . 2. . . 3. . . 4. . . 5,” they launch into an instrumental version of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?,” not yet ready to sing and play at the same time.

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Childish giggles play counterpoint to the violin at this Beverly homeless shelter, where a quintet of ebullient young girls — two middle-schoolers from Marblehead and three others who live in the shelter — meet for one-hour lessons each week. The middle-schoolers, Sophia Spungin and Emily Swearingen, both 13, have trained on the instrument for years and decided to teach violin as part of a school service project in June.

“It’s pretty cool that we can teach them stuff and bring a positive experience and element to their lives,” Swearingen said.

For the girls in the shelter — Vanessa, 10; Angelina, 10; and Isabella, 8 — the lessons are a weekly reprieve from the stress and confusion of homelessness.

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“Our kids need more than food; they need music, they need art, they need to be kids for a while,” said Heather, 34, the mother of Angelina and Isabella.

The girls’ parents, who receive housing and assistance through the shelter program Family Promise North Shore Boston, asked that the Globe not use their last names.

Russ Queen, director of Family Promise North Shore Boston, said the violin lessons offer extracurricular activity the girls might not otherwise have.

“When families go through a period of homelessness or just trying to find work or whatever, parents aren’t afforded the opportunity to look for things that might enrich their kids’ lives,” he said.

Swearingen and Spungin, who practice often and play cleanly, raised money through an online fund-raiser to buy starter violins for their students. Each week, they print out sheet music and search for tunes that will appeal to the young girls (the song from the Disney animated musical “Frozen” was an obvious request).

The lessons started in June with instruction on how to pick up a bow and hold a violin. Now the girls in the shelter can play short stretches of complicated songs such as the folk standard “Bile ’Em Cabbage Down.”

“It’s really fun and it just brings out our musical personality,” said Angelina, one of the 10-year-olds who lives in the shelter.

Sophia Spungin (background left) and Emily Swearingen supervised violin lessons for Vanessa and Angelina. Students’ families say music allows them to escape the reality of being homeless.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Sophia Spungin (background left) and Emily Swearingen, 13, supervised violin lessons for Vanessa and Angelina. Students’ families say music allows them to escape the reality of being homeless.

Lessons take a laid-back form because the girls are so close in age. They break to talk about pop songs — “Rude” by Magic! is a favorite — and other interests such as gymnastics. (Angelina is close to hitting her aerial, but she’s scared to do it.)

“We’ve become more than just like teachers to them; we like to hear what they’re doing,” Spungin said.

She makes sure to say, “Good job” after each practice attempt, and Swearingen always shares a smile before moving to the next song or verse. Sometimes she’ll drop a joke or funny aside — “Did you know the end of a bow is called a ‘frog?’ ”

Vanessa, a girl in the shelter who had learned some violin before this summer, said playing music is comforting to her.

“I like that I can express myself,” she said shyly.

Rachel, Vanessa’s 35-year-old mother, said the young teachers at the shelter are more patient and flexible than those in traditional schools. For her family, music summons memories of singing in the shower or car and “having fun times" before they lost their home and joined Family Promise in late May.

“It just kind of takes them out of the situation,” Rachel said. “They can forget they’re homeless for a little bit.”

Family Promise North Shore Boston is a nonprofit that Queen says receives no federal or state funding.

It can accommodate four families or 14 people, housing them overnight at various churches around the North Shore on a rotating schedule.

The building in Beverly is a day center with shared lounge space for the families. Inside, everything is communal. They share two plum couches, a flatscreen TV, a floor covered with toys, and a small kitchen.

But the three girls each own their violins, giving them “a sense of confidence,” said Heather, the mother of Angelina and Isabella. “They don’t feel like they’re going without.”

Though their school project ended in June, Spungin and Swearingen said they plan to continue teaching violin at the shelter, even if their friends don’t always understand why they’re trying so hard.

Spungin’s mother, Jennifer, 31, said her daughter rarely asks for help in planning lessons and has learned how to manage different personalities.

“I thought, ‘Halfway through the summer, this is going to peter out and they’re not going to want to do it,’ but they’ve just kept going,” she said.

The girls no longer see the lessons as schoolwork, and they want to find other volunteers to expand their teaching.

“Doing things for other people gives you a good feeling,” the younger Spungin said. “It’s not just work, it’s something that you benefit from, too.”

Spungin and Emily Swearingen, 13, fund-raised to get the homeless girls violins of their own.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Spungin and Swearingen fund-raised to get the homeless girls violins of their own.

Zachary T. Sampson can be reached at zachary.sampson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZackSampson.
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