The guitar was always there for Scott Neumann growing up.
Now he's making sure it's there for others, even if they can't afford it.
The Wonder Lake man created Free Guitars for Future Stars to offer lessons and guitars to children from low-income families throughout McHenry County. Once the students, ages 10 to 17, complete the 8-month program, they take home the guitars.
And perhaps, like Neumann, music always will be a part of their lives.
"There's something about this moment when you see them pick up a guitar and they play something they never thought they could play," said Neumann, who began playing guitar at age 8 and played in various bands for years.
He quietly walked around the room as a group of about 10 students worked on "Jingle Bells."
"OK, good," he encouraged. "Let's try it once more. You with me on this? One, two, three ..."
A retired U.S. post office employee, 56-year-old Neumann was inspired to start the nonprofit organization while offering private guitar lessons to students. He'd see students with $1,500 guitars left in the middle of the basement floor.
"I started thinking, 'Do these kids really want or need this?' " he said.
He read "Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World" by Bill Clinton and decided to find a way to reach children who needed music in their lives but couldn't afford the lessons or the guitars.
"I wanted to do something that makes a difference in kids' lives and helps out the community," he said. "You don't need a big group of people to make a difference. It wasn't really much of an effort to come up with the idea."
He asked a couple of friends to help, raised funds, bought about 10 guitars at wholesale prices and officially started the organization in 2009.
The McHenry County Community Foundation since has helped fund it through grants.
Beginning with 10 students in a pilot program, the organization had about 80 students apply this year. With Neumann teaching, along with two others, the organization tries to accommodate as many students as possible.
Offering five classes right now, the students meet in groups of 10 to 15 at various spots in the county for weekly lessons.
At a recent McHenry class, Kristi Kunish of McHenry smiled as her 12-year-old son, Nick, strummed "Yankee Doodle Dandee" along with the others.
"This is my one day off a week from work because I want to do this with him," she said quietly. "On the car ride home, we sing every song on the radio. This is our time. He loves this."
Nick had tried sports and other activities, but they weren't for him.
He's always enjoyed music, his mother said, and often sings and goofs off around the house. He now practices his guitar all the time, she said, and is teaching other family members to play.
"He'll play anything and everything," she said. "He makes up horrible songs."
Samantha Hoeck's three children, 16-year-old Josh, 14-year-old Hannah and 10-year-old Leah, graduated from the program and recently performed as part of a concert at the Dole Mansion in Crystal Lake.
The Lakeside Legacy Foundation invited Free Guitars for Future Stars to perform as part of its First Friday art show.
Josh Hoeck has moved on to writing his own songs and playing with his father, Brian. The Woodstock family commended the program, as well as Neumann.
"He has awesome patience with the kids," Samantha Hoeck said. "My kids really enjoyed the program. I hope it sticks around a long time. ... To be able to get a reward like a guitar at the end is awesome."By Story by JAMI KUNZER • firstname.lastname@example.org – Photos by Lathan Goumas • email@example.com