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Fitting Tribute to a Talented Musician

Springfield chapter of Guitars Not Guns forms to honor Aaron Brown, teenager killed in February shooting.

If Skip Chaples has anything to say about it, the ripple effect of Aaron Brown's death will soon be turned into waves of sound made by children playing guitars.

Chaples, along with Betsy Stone and Gloria Dawson, have created the Aaron Brown chapter of Guitars Not Guns, a California-based group that provides free guitars and lessons to at-risk children with the hopes that music lessons will keep them out of gangs and away from violence.

"After Aaron died, his parents asked for people to donate money to this group instead of sending flowers," said Chaples, who lives a few houses down the street from the Browns in Springfield. Their interest in Guitars Not Guns was understandable; their son, an only child, had been an avid musician, playing guitar and singing in the choir at Annandale High School. After graduating in 2005, he went on to study music at Northern Virginia Community College before being shot and killed outside an IHOP in Alexandria in February.

RATHER THAN sending donations to California, where donors might never know the impact of their outreach, Chaples contacted the organization's founder to find out what was needed to start a chapter in Virginia, one of the first branches outside California.

"We got together and filled out the paperwork to start a chapter here and then had to get permission to operate as a 501c3 here in Virginia," Chaples said. "It was cumbersome for a bunch of novices." As of June 26, the chapter is officially up and running.

The premise of Guitars Not Guns is simple, he said.

"We will run eight-week class sessions with children and, at the end of the session, if they pass a certain test, they get to keep their guitar and can keep taking lessons," Chaples said. "Typically, you keep kids for several years, maybe until a point where they can move into private lessons or take lessons at their school."

Lessons will be given in small classes, no more than 10 students at a time, by volunteer teachers and assistants, Chaples said. Four teachers have already signed up for the first session of classes, which he hopes to begin this fall.

Each child will receive a guitar upon starting classes, the most expensive part of the program. To help defray those costs, the Aaron Brown chapter of Guitars Not Guns has been selling black T-shirts featuring a line drawing of Aaron at year-end concerts at Annandale High School and on their page of the Guitars Not Guns Web site.

"So far, we've sold 268 shirts," Chaples said. "But we really need to expand beyond that to make this work."

The shirts were designed by Emily Dawson, who went to school with Aaron, said her mother, Gloria Dawson.

"His death hit our community really bad," said Dawson, who also serves as secretary for Guitars Not Guns in Springfield.

The design for the T-shirt came from a photograph of Aaron holding an acoustic guitar, the same photograph used on the program from his funeral in March. A simple line drawing on a black background, the image bears a strong likeness to Aaron.

"We knew if we had a good design, kids would want to wear it," Dawson said. "It's a badge of honor and a good way to remember Aaron."

ALL CHAPTERS of Guitars Not Guns received a helping hand in the form of a corporate sponsor earlier this year, when Gibson Guitars signed on to a three-year partnership deal. This year, Gibson has donated 50 guitars and has announced plans to donate 75 guitars next year and 100 guitars in 2008, in addition to purchasing advertisements in national guitar magazines with information about the group. Twelve of those guitars have already been dedicated to the Springfield chapter.

Right now, the focus is on finding enough teachers for classes before classes begin in September, Chaples said.

"There's no shortage of kids who will be interested in this," he said. "We're mostly trying to figure out how to narrow it down. How many classes we'll be able to offer depends on how much money we'll be able to raise and how many guitars we'll be able to buy."

Many of Aaron's friends have signed up to assist the teachers, providing one-on-one tutoring and personalized instruction, Chaples said.

Looking to the future, Dawson said she hopes to see the program continue to grow and "be something really positive in the lives of young people."

While her children were at Annandale High School, Dawson said she'd often act as taxi driver, taking students to Holmes Middle School where they gave younger students guitar lessons.

"It's going to be interesting to see all this come together," she said of Guitars Not Guns. "I'm really looking forward to seeing the kids get their hands on guitars. It would be wonderful if someone really takes to it."

So far, Cheri Brown has been helping to sell T-shirts for Guitars Not Guns, but she said she hopes to get more involved as the program evolves.

"I want to see it grow. I want to have a big part in it," she said.

Brown has already been able to give $12,000, some of which came in the form of matching grants from her employer, Freddie Mac. In addition to working with Guitars Not Guns, she and her husband, Jeff, have created the Aaron Brown Memorial Scholarship, which will give out $500 scholarships each to a guitar and choral student at Annandale High School.

The past few months have been difficult for them, Cheri Brown said, dealing with their son's death and trying to rebuild their lives.

"We're hurting," she said. "My heart still feels very sore and empty. It's a real pain that exists and I'm getting used to it. ... I'm not in shock anymore, but I can't believe it happened."

Aaron's room is still the way it looked when he left home that night, she said, but she's begun to use part of it for her stained glass hobby. For Mother's Day, some of Aaron's friends, who still gather at their house on Friday nights for pizza and movies, gave her a kit to make a stained glass guitar.

"These kids are so loyal to us because they loved Aaron so much," Brown said. "I don't know what we'd do without them. They realize more and more what impact they can make if they try ... they come to our home and know they're loved."

If Aaron were still alive, she's sure he would have been very interested in helping out Guitars Not Guns.

"I'm sure he would've been a teacher. He was really good with kids," she said.