Monday, March 5, 2018

Helen Fox Gospel Music Center

Helen Fox
Tucked away in an unassuming corner of the Douglass Community Association on Kalamazoo’s inner-city Northside neighborhood is the Helen Fox Gospel Music Center.
The Center was established about one-and-a-half years ago to honor Helen’s memory, with a mission to teach music to children from low-income families, the vast majority being African-American. Helen passed away in 2016 at 96 years of age after more than five decades as a music educator and community mobilizer.
“She was very well known on the Northside,” begins Bridget Tucker Gonder, the Center’s president.

“She loved music and she loved teaching,” says Joseph Fox, her son, who serves as the Center’s vice-president.

“Education was important to her,” adds Gonder. 
So much so that Helen, married and with children, went back to school to get her high school diploma at fifty years of age. 
Eventually Helen began teaching music in a local junior high school. But she also took her lessons on the road, offering to teach children in their homes. At one point, Helen regularly took the Greyhound bus into neighboring Battle Creek to teach children there as well. 
“The bus driver knew my mother very well,” laughs Joseph.
Joseph recalled his mother as being committed, energetic and determined. “She didn’t make excuses [for not tackling a challenge],” agreed Gonder.
And that determination is being passed on  to students through Bertha Barbee-McNeal, one of the instructors at the Center, who taught for twenty-six years in the Kalamazoo Public School system.
“If you have a talent, you should give back,” she says. 
Barbee-McNeal notes that the Center is forging relationships with the greater music community in Kalamazoo, through the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, Kalamazoo Symphony and the Stulberg International String Festival.
Helen Fox (right) with students
The Center has two other instructors, Alexis Terrian, and Devin McGowan, who both teach violin.
Joseph points out that, currently, there aren’t any African-American members in the Kalamazoo Youth Symphony. But the Helen Fox Gospel Music Center is actively working to change that.
Barbee-McNeal’s dream is “to grow [the Center] into an academy with all instruments being taught, along with vocals, including Gospel and choir.”
Joseph’s dream includes the Center eventually having its own free-standing building.
The Center began with four students, but currently has fifteen. Most of the students live in or near the Northside of the city, where ninety percent of the children attending public school are eligible for the free or reduced lunch program.
Because of this economic reality, Bridget points out that the Center has a pay-what-you-can-afford policy. 
“We operate [mostly] on donations and grants,” says Joseph, who adds, “When you’ve been given a vision it’s important to bring it to pass. I don’t sing. I don’t play an instrument. But I’m a big supporter of my mother’s work.”

For additional background information on the Helen Fox Gospel Music Center, visit their website:

If you’d like to support the work of the Center, you can send donations to: Helen Fox Gospel Music Center, PO Box 2621, Portage, MI 49081. The Center is also looking for donations of violins and other instruments. For more information about the Center, you can call 269.365-2826.

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