Flash back to early May of 2011. At just 22 years of age, Cameron Gish was a widely-known and well-respected student on campus at Murray State University in Murray, KY. Just days before he would walk with cap and gown in his commencement ceremony, Cameron had been recognized as the Outstanding Senior Man of his graduating class. Known for meeting and conquering challenges head on, Cameron refused to be deterred by the odds against him when he interviewed at Hillsboro School. Call it grit or just young naïveté, Cameron packed his bags and headed for Tennessee. His Racer Band Director and mentor, John Fannin, sent him off with one piece of sage advice, “To succeed at this, you need to find someone when you get there; someone that will help you.”
Waiting eagerly in the school cafeteria for the annual “Rising 6th Grade Info Night” was newly-zoned 6th Grade Hillsboro parent and long-time band advocate, PJ Littleton. PJ was a trumpet player throughout middle and high school band, was a member of the McDonald’s All-American Band and All-American Jazz Band and also marched in the West Virginia University “Pride of West Virginia” Marching Band. He also worked for nearly twenty years in the commercial recorded music industry. While old enough to be Cameron’s father, PJ immediately began to bombard Mr. Gish with ideas and aspirations to build this new band program at Hillsboro. After hours of sharing and brainstorming, Cameron and PJ called it a night…at about 3:00 AM the next morning. This initial meeting ended with an emerging vision, the beginnings of a mission and several short term, long term and blue sky goals.
Amidst all the innovative ideas, two immediate challenges remained. Twelve band students would not be enough to sustain and we had no money to equip these eager, but meager, twelve kids. We needed to devise a recruitment campaign and create a fundraising mechanism to begin establishing a new culture at the school and throughout the surrounding community.
The first hurdle was fashioning a band room environment that would be enticing, vibrant and foundational for creative expression. We rolled up our sleeves and began the process of transforming a bequeathed space that had previously served as a teacher dump room for unwanted and tired items. You name it, we had it in this room.
Once the room was cleared, we realized we needed to create an identity for our band at Hillsboro School. The school mascot is an Indian, not so politically correct we noted, but how could we work with it and still become our own unique entity? We decided to bring some emotion into our persona and chose to call ourselves the “Hillsboro School Dreamcatcher Band.”
The official school colors are red and black but we decided to bring further distinction to our group and add a special third color that would help identify the band kids from other students in the school. We hoped this new identity would help recruitment efforts and our fundraising campaign. Turquoise seemed to be an authentic Native American color, so we adopted it to join the school’s red and black.
Many late nights, turned into early morning hours, were spent rolling and brushing gallons and gallons of red, turquoise and white paint onto the cinder block walls of this former land of misfit toys. We got some of the kids involved so they would also take ownership of their new band. As the room began to take shape and a new identity was created, we recognized that the concrete floors were not appropriate for an academic classroom. After several unanswered pleas to the district and a halted attempt to do it ourselves, a new tile floor was installed, capping off the cheery atmosphere that we had once envisioned for our room.
Three dirty storage closets were emptied and refurbished into practice rooms. A friend who worked for a vinyl lettering company offered her talents to display our new moniker on the wall behind where the podium (that we did not yet have yet) would stand. We also filled the remaining walls with other words and phrases of inspiration and encouragement, like “You Play The Way You Practice,” which greets each student in our practice rooms.
We now had a spiffy new band room that we could use as a pied piper for recruiting. We set up a “lounge” area right at the band room entrance with an inexpensive area rug, a salvaged upright piano, congo drums that we found, old guitar books from the choir room, and a few other miscellaneous instruments that were in the back of a janitor’s closet. To complete the vibe, we purchased some simple bean bag and dorm style seating. Kids would soon flock to this spot every morning before and after classes; precisely what we hoped would happen.
We were well on our way, but this was getting expensive on our own nickels and dimes. We needed to find other funding sources that would provide for the expansive instrument inventory needed to start a band. PJ works for a local land development company and has strong relationships with several home builders that he represents. Given that these builders were very concerned about the new district-wide rezoning and how it might impact home sales in the communities in which they build (and hopefully sell) homes, PJ envisioned a way that builders could fund the improvements necessary to make our school more attractive to interested home-buyers. A more attractive school would have a direct relationship with the number of home sales in their communities. The new band program was the most logical place to invest.
We created a fundraising/branding campaign dubbed “Catch The Dream – Build The Band” as an adjunct to a new 501c3 that was formed simultaneously for the global revitalization efforts at the school called “Hillsboro Tomorrow.” Hillsboro Tomorrow would go on to raise $300,000 for the school in just one year’s time. Our “Catch The Dream – Build The Band” campaign would benefit from this as well. Thanks to a network of invested and generous home builders, a substantial “seed fund” was created that would fund the initial expenses necessary to build a band, like chairs, stands and equipment. The Hillsboro Band was now in a position to begin the acquisition of essential instruments before school commenced in the first week of August. It was June.