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A daughter's look at a father's words

By Phil Latham
June 21, 2015 at 3:45 a.m.

Ken Chinn, left, and his daughter Tara started the Chinn Guitar Project.

Ken Chinn's daughter is sick. She has the kind of condition that knots the insides of parents with worry, that causes their voices to crack in pure anguish when they speak of it.

Worst of all, the illness is one that makes doctors shrug their shoulders in helplessness. They don't have the answers Chinn and his family so desperately want.

But Tara Chinn's seizures — caused by frontal lobe epilepsy — have ultimately led to thousands of children having their spirits lifted through the therapy of music.

"God has opened doors in the midst of tragedy," Chinn said.

Two years ago Chinn, a Longview financial manager, had no intention of opening the door to the Chinn Guitar Project but now that he and Tara have walked through it he realizes that there is no turning back.

"I don't think I could not be a part of this now," he said.

A casual conversation

In June 2013 Tara was scheduled for a long stay in the monitoring unit of Children's Medical Center in Dallas.

This wasn't the first such experience for either daughter or father and they knew the high boredom that awaited them, as Tara would be connected to a machine with a dozen or more separate electrodes registering her brain waves, making movement difficult.

Now 17, Tara began having seizures at 8, leading to trips across the country to see numerous doctors, including the leading epilepsy specialists in the world.

"If money or medicine could fix this we would already be done," Chinn said.

On the June 2013 trip Tara told her father that she planned to take her guitar to give her something to do. Being musically inclined, Tara had been playing guitar for a few years, especially since epilepsy had taken away her ability to play sports and be involved in other activities.

Situated in a room, a nurse saw the guitar and asked if they wanted a music therapist to visit.

"I didn't even know there was such a thing," Chinn said. He would later learn that Children's Medical Center had four registered music therapists.

When the therapist visited the room with her guitar, Chinn, who also has an active interest in music as a director of the T-Bone Walker Blues Festival, filled the silence with small talk.

"It was only a casual conversation and I said I bet with all that hospital's resources that they had plenty of guitars to go around for all the patients. The therapist just hung her head when I said that and I knew it was a bad sign."

In fact, the therapist, Karen Norris, told him that the only guitars available were those owned personally by her and the other three therapists.

"My daughter was staring at me with this look that said, 'Well, are we going to help?' So I just told the therapist that I would donate 10 guitars so that the children could have one to use if they wanted."

With a daughter's look and a father's words, the Chinn Guitar Project began.

'One and done'

Norris did not answer immediately. Instead she told Chinn she would be meeting with a hospital administrator the next morning and asked if he wanted to come.

Faced with the boredom of the monitoring unit, Chinn agreed and the next day he was sitting in an office before a woman who was plainly skeptical of his intentions and abilities. "She was asking me, 'Now how do you spell your name?' I could see her on the computer right there in front of me Googling my name to see who I was."

Abruptly, the woman asked Chinn if he would like to take a walk. They left the office and went to the hospital's basement. There Chinn saw the Ryan Seacrest Studio, a state-of-the-art combination television-radio studio that Seacrest donated to the hospital.

"It was incredible," Chinn said. "I never would have known it was there. I had no reason to go to the basement."

Then the administrator let it be known that not only was the hospital interested in his gift, but in making sure the rest of the world knew he was giving.

"She said, 'Let's make this a big deal. Let's have a concert, too.'"

Chinn is always up for a good concert and knew he could put one together. The agreement was made and the two parted for that day.

"I was feeling pretty good about myself," he said. "I was giving away 10 guitars, helping the hospital, helping kids. It was going to be one and done and that was it."

But Chinn was about to be surprised, and not for the last time.

Sleep interrupted

The guitar giveaway and concert in Dallas went off without a hitch and Chinn was impressed at the ability of the marketing department at Dallas Children's Hospital to generate publicity.

"When they want to get people out they can do it," he said. "They have an amazing network."

Back home in Longview, Chinn was in the near-sleep zone with visions of "one and done" dancing in his head when Tara came into his bedroom to ask a question which he remembers as, "Dad, can I set up a social media page?"

"I told her, sure, do whatever you want. I didn't really even know what that meant."

It would take only a matter of hours for Chinn to begin to realize the power of social media but, more than that, the power of an idea.

"Within just a few hours she had a woman who cleaned houses for a living who wanted to donate $50 to help buy more guitars, then a school teacher who wanted to give $100, then someone else. When she told me that I said, 'No. No. No. No. No.' I knew then I was going to have to set up a 501(C)3 charity with a board to handle all this money."

The money wasn't the only thing to come in, though, institutions from near and far began to request, if possible, that they be included in the project.

One and done was gone.

How it works

The Chinn Guitar Project gives their instruments to the institutions — hospitals, schools, after-school programs. Those institutions then check out the guitars to the children who want to play them or learn how to play.

Each guitar comes with a tuner and a book to help them learn. Most of the guitars are checked out and then back in for the next child.

But not all of them.

"I told them right from the beginning that if they had a kid who they think will benefit from a guitar at home, give it to them. We will replace it. I told them not to call me and ask, just do it."

And so they have. Over the two-year period, Chinn has given another 11 guitars to Dallas Children's Hospital under that policy.

In all, 400 guitars have been given away to institutions in the two years. The guitars are bought in three sizes: half, three-quarters and full.

"It doesn't do any good to give a full-size guitar to someone who is too small to play it," Chinn said. "We want everyone to be able to take part."

Everyone does, too, not just patients with epilepsy. Many of the guitars have been used by child cancer patients, with most of the use administered by one of the 5,000 certified music therapists in the United States. Guitars have been given to a number of area public and private schools, too, as well as the Boys & Girls Club. Hospitals from the east to west coasts and many points in-between have benefited.

Chinn said the benefits go well beyond better emotional health. "If you go into the monitoring room where the nurses are looking at all kinds of readings you can tell the moment music is introduced. Everything changes. A doctor will look at it, circle that part of the record and ask, 'What has happened here?'"

The Song Remains the Same

Life has been a crazy train for Chinn and Tara over the last nine years as they have looked for a way to control her epilepsy but since the formation of the Chinn Guitar Project Tara has been able to meet her favorite singer, Taylor Swift, as well as Carrie Underwood. She has also worked with Hall of Fame Quarterback Steve Young.

Chinn said interest in the project has not nearly reached its peak, either in the number of people who are wanting guitars or those who are ready and willing to help.

He has been invited to speak at the national convention of the American Music Therapists Association, which will no doubt create even more interest.

For all the children who have been helped and all the work it has taken, it is clear that the benefits flow in both directions.

"My daughter has been through more challenges in 17 years that most people ever have to go through," Chinn said. "She's been through 100 times more than I have. This has made her a very compassionate person. You can see the joy and satisfaction she gets from giving these guitars away and that's her job. She gives the guitars."

The week before Father's Day, Tara went on "vacation," which meant going to yet another doctor in another state. There's no prognosis on when, how or if her condition will be eased.

Chinn and Tara know just one surety about the future: The music and the giving will go on.

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