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Mountain Faith Band’s literacy project an example of grass-roots initiative

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This story was originally published as a Carolina Journal Exclusive.

Mountain Faith Band, which has graced the stage of the Grand Ole Opry and Radio City Music Hall, wants to bring its unique blend of Americana/roots music to a school near you.

It’s all in the name of promoting literacy and writing, without government funding or related mandates.

The bluegrass, folk, and gospel family band from Sylva has been playing its unique brand of music since 2000. Named the 2016 International Bluegrass Music Association Emerging Artist of the Year, the group’s members are Summer McMahan, Brayden McMahan, Sam McMahan, Cory Piatt, and Nick Dauphinais.

In 2015, Mountain Faith made it to the semifinal round on the popular TV show “America’s Got Talent,” propelled by a unique cover of the OneRepublic hit “Counting Stars.” The same year the band traveled to the Persian Gulf and performed six concerts for the troops.

Mountain Faith Band is now in the studio working on a new CD. The band’s most recent work, “That Which Matters,” landed atop the Roots billboard charts.

But when Mountain Faith Band’s tour schedule allows, the members are taking to a different sort of stage, one they hope will inspire youngsters to tell their own story, in their own words. The members are promoting literacy and character education at elementary and high schools along their route, trying to fill a gap schools — both public and private — sometimes struggle to fill.

“I Write My Story” is a literacy initiative a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.

The project is dedicated to promoting the benefits of writing among all students to ensure future successes in any career path, says Sandra McMahan, band wife and mother, and a teacher.

For McMahan, the seeds for the program began to sprout as she studied for her master’s in school administration and her family was on tour. It started with a band promoter who asked if they would play en route to a gig at his alma mater. That grew into performances at more than 30 schools since 2015 in North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, and Ohio.

“Summer wrote a song about her grandfather’s 1969 red Ford truck, which is now used in a Universal Ford commercial,” Sandra McMahan explains. “There’s a story behind every song you write. Every song isn’t about chew, tobacco, spit. I thought we need a literacy foundation to buy writing journals for kids to brainstorm so that any thought they had, they could write down.”

She was inspired, in part, because she has seen, firsthand, high school grads who can’t write a paragraph or format a paper.

“My mission is guided by the desire to inspire students to be life-long writers. Without writing we lose generations of stories and thoughts. I want to bring to the forefront the importance of sharing their stories in any writing format possible. My focus is to get them ready for college. I am anxious to see where this goes.”

Programs like this offer innovative teaching techniques outside of government programs and the subsequent government funding. President Trump, in fact, has proposed eliminating the entire $148 million National Endowment of the Arts budget, giving these type of programs added importance.

It’s based on the idea of a civil society, which, the Cato Institute’s David Boaz defines as a spirit of cooperation so we all have a chance to flourish.

Sandra McMahan has taken a year’s leave of absence to travel with her family’s band and take the nonprofit’s mission to motivate students to write creatively and discover the importance and benefits of quality writing. All the while with the goal of improving their literacy skills, for as many students in as many schools as possible.

By providing students with a motivational, engaging musical program highlighting songwriting, McMahan hopes students will embrace a fun, musical experience that incorporates personal stories through poetry, story writing, and song.

“It’s that simple,” she explains. “I want it to be profound, but in a simple way.”

“Students,” the nonprofit says, “will be provided a personal writing journal to encourage their creativity. They will hear an inspiring message from the program that will assist in introducing students to ways of being creative both in the classroom and at home. The broader message emphasizes that writing is a critical component and a necessary skill to compete effectively in life in order to fulfill potentials and reach goals towards a successful path.”

The nonprofit status will help buy journals and defray some of the band’s travel expenses when it goes to schools.

Every student attending a Mountain Faith school performance receives a journal, pen, and pencil to begin their writing journeys. Many students for the first time will get to experience a musical concert performed by a nationally recognized band.

Rae Parker is the instructional technology facilitator at Rosman Middle/Rosman Elementary/ TC Henderson Elementary schools and a big fan of Mountain Faith’s literacy efforts.

She has seen the results from the band’s March visits.

“I had one teacher tell me that she had a student that hated writing. After Mountain Faith came to our school, this student will write if the teacher plays one of Mountain Faith’s CDs. The students have also written beautiful letters to Summer thanking her and the band for coming to their school.”

Among the three schools the band reached nearly 900 students who got to hear Mountain Faith perform and learn what prompted the members to write their own stories. There was also interactive time that included mini writing lessons, as well as an air band competition among the teachers in which students got to scream to determine the winner.

Parker adds, “I feel students need positive role models that encourage hard work, creativity, and the desire to do their best. Mountain Faith Band does that with their new ‘I Write My story’ literacy program. Many students watched them on ‘America’s Got Talent’ and look up to them. Through [the band’s] love of writing and performing songs, they pass their love and passion to students to tell their own story. The students are using their journals and are excited to show me their stories.”

That is all the proof McMahan needs to deem the program a success. “Music goes hand in hand with writing. I taught kindergarten through first grade and I can remember using a lot of music videos to learn how to count and read.”

Summer McMahan enjoys sharing her music and songs with students because, as she explains, “Writing has always been a way for me to express exactly what I am feeling. I write things that I find difficult to articulate to others.”

“I Write My Story” isn’t limited to North Carolina or the Southeast. “The band is going to Utah in the fall for concerts,” she says, “and I plan to reach out at some point to find out where we can go to schools there as well.”

Interested in having the Mountain Faith Band perform at your local schools? Visit iwritemystory.org/ read-me/

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