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Omaha Magazine

No Strings Attached: The Healing Power of Music and Stories

Sep 02, 2020 08:44AM ● By Katrina Markel
Zach Schafer, Zak Courtney, Band of the Strong

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It’s not typical that a college student announces to his roommate, “Zak, it looks like we’re starting a nonprofit,” but that’s how Zak Courtney describes the advent of Band of the Strong. 

Courtney and his friend Zach Schafer were seniors at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2016 when they cofounded the charity. The men both experienced loss and trauma at young ages and understood firsthand how isolating that can be, especially for children and teenagers. 

Schafer, whose father died when he was 8 years old, was playing guitar one day when he started thinking about ways to make the instrument easier for kids to play. He searched ‘cigar box guitars for kids with cancer’ online and discovered Rulon International, Inc., a wood and acoustical ceiling manufacturer that was making the simple instruments out of spare materials. Even more surprising to Schafer, Rulon was willing to donate the guitars. 

“It’s just a little box guitar with two or three strings,” Schafer said. “Really easy to play for a kid.” 

 Schafer and Courtney sought help from the entrepreneurship and legal clinics at UNL and quickly established Band of the Strong as a nonprofit entity. Initially, they hosted a workshop with the Munroe-Meyer Institute at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. 

The two friends realized they had tapped into something powerful when a young man with profound special needs danced, sang, and responded to their workshop.  

"We just wanted to go and give kids an experience,” Schafer said. “We just knew that music was this thing that could help people.”

“Music is a universal language and it’s not cryptic,” Courtney said.

At first the young men said they were “just winging it,” but eventually they developed a curriculum and partnerships with other organizations. 

Anica Marcum is the operations coordinator for Grief’s Journey, an Omaha-based nonprofit that partners with Band of the Strong. Courtney and Schafer conduct workshops for Camp Hope, a weekend camp run by Grief’s Journey for teenagers who have suffered a loss. Marcum said that Band of the Strong is consistently a favorite part of the weekend for the teens. She believes they have a unique way of connecting with the kids. 

“I have personally been super blessed to get to work with them and watch their creativeness flow,” Marcum said. “They’re just very unique and they’re kind and they care. You think when you work with them that they’ve been doing this forever, and they haven’t.” 

Courtney, who now runs a business with his father, survived a sexual assault as a teenager. Schafer, an educator, lost a parent. Children who have experienced serious loss or trauma often find it difficult to relate to peers.

“We’re connecting with them because we’re walking our individual grief paths at a different point in our lives,” Courtney said. “We’re not trying to come across as educators, we’re just trying to come across as people.”

“All these teens have been through such traumatic things at such young ages,” Marcum said. She pointed out that meeting two young adults who are honest and open is inspirational for the teens who attend Camp Hope, “They are so vulnerable about their stories.”

Anthony Saunsoci, who turns 17 Sept. 27 and is a senior at Omaha Central, is one of those teens. He immediately connected with Schafer’s story.

“Sometimes with my friends they would say that they understand what was going on in my situation and they really didn’t,” Anthony said. “[Schafer] lost his dad at the same age as me and I really connected with him through that.” 

In another sad coincidence, Anthony’s mom, LaToya Saunsoci, was 8 years old when her mother died. Even with that experience, she said it was a struggle to get Anthony to express his grief. She was worried her son wouldn’t learn how to grieve in a healthy way.

“He would shut down, would not speak about it, he would not engage in any type of conversation about losing his dad,” LaToya said. “I noticed when he would come back from those camps how he was able to speak about his dad more so than he had before,” LaToya said. 

When Schafer and Courtney work with teens at Camp Hope, they set up three different stations to facilitate storytelling and creativity. Anthony happens to be serious about playing guitar, but there is no requirement that the campers be musical or interested in playing an instrument. There is a visual art station where the teens are encouraged to paint their cigar box guitars; a writing salon where the kids can put their story down in words; and a music station where campers can share a piece of music by another artist that reflects their experiences or feelings. 

Marcum said that Band of the Strong, from the first time the organization participated in Camp Hope, was “right at the top” of the kids’ favorite activities. At the end of the workshop the group collaborates on a silly song, and Schafer goes around the room and plays it. 

“It always brings the mood back up,” she said. “It’s so neat to watch.” 

“We just heard a lot of cool stories. Not every kid is going to be a musician,” Schafer said. He recalled a story about a participant who was in foster care. When her 6-year-old foster brother asked about the cigar box guitar she told him, “You don’t play it, it’s to tell stories.” She found an appropriate way to tell her personal story of not living with her biological family to the 6-year-old. His response was, “I’m really happy that you’re part of our family.”  

“You don’t really know what the impact of what you’re doing is until you hear their stories,” Courtney said. 

Anthony’s story with Band of the Strong continued beyond camp. Last year, LaToya wanted to buy her son a new, higher-end guitar for Christmas as a reward for helping around the house and with his younger siblings. He was also playing music a lot. She said an upgraded instrument was going to be “really pricey.” It was happenstance that LaToya was searching for an affordable guitar just as Band of the Strong was thinking of Anthony as a worthy recipient of a new instrument. 

“Out of the blue they contacted me through Grief’s Journey and asked me if they could get Anthony a guitar for Christmas,” LaToya said. “I have never seen my son give a full, complete smile.” 

“When they give those instruments to kids in need it’s pretty powerful,” Marcum said.

Band of the Strong occasionally has special funds or donations to use on a deserving student. Anthony was committed to music, one reason they thought of him as a possible recipient. As it turned out, “The stars just kind of aligned,” Schafer said.

“I’m still in shock that they could have done something so generous. And the fact that they understand what these children are going through and they can relate,”  LaToya said. “I’m so grateful for them.” 

Schafer and Courtney are modest about their talents. The two friends describe their work in terms of sharing stories, engaging with others authentically, and meeting young people wherever they are in their grieving process. 

Schafer said, “I think that’s what it means to spread love and kindness.” 

There is no question the love and kindness have been appreciated in the Saunsoci family. 

Visit bandofthestrong.org for more information.

This article was printed in the September 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.