GOSHEN — Musician Nayo Ulloa has been teaching kids to play instruments for years, but his newest class at the Elkhart County Juvenile Detention Center is unlike any other he has ever encountered.
Ulloa recently started visiting the center twice a week where he meets with teens for hourlong sessions to talk about Latin American music, poetry and art from around the world, asking them to reflect on the meaning behind the pieces.
“That’s the good thing about art,” said Ulloa, 55. “There’s no right or wrong answer.”
The 11 residents in his class lit up when he entered the classroom with cowbells, guitars, drums, flutes and maracas in tow on Wednesday, June 11. He peppers his conversations with the group with life lessons he hopes they will carry with them. He wants the teens to know they can express themselves through art, but most of all, he wants to inspire them without preaching, leaving them with a sense of hope for their futures.
“He’s got a lot of different cultures in his blood,” said one of the 18-year-old residents. “It’s unique. He’s a fun person and he shows a lot of respect for people. I think it’s good that he goes out and teaches kids how to play instruments.”
Ulloa grew up in Peru with a large family and sees pieces of himself reflected in the teens he meets with every week.
“I’ve never been in jail, but I grew up in extreme poverty,” he said. “I was lucky that my family was together and I had art. I’m here because of music, and I used art to go forward.”
Ulloa and his wife moved to Goshen about two and half years ago from California, and they hope to one day open at Latin American culture and language center in the Maple City. Ulloa, an adjunct professor at Goshen College, has a passion for teaching and used to visit classrooms on the West Coast to show kids how to play music. His program at the detention center is a new experience.
“They’re like any other kids, really,” he said, describing the detention center residents. “At first, I didn’t know what to expect because I’ve never done this before. They’re mostly the same, but once in a while, they’ll surprise you by sharing something that’s a little more traumatic that’s happened in their lives that you wouldn’t expect.”
There are 14 residents at the center, ranging from 13 to 18 years old. Most are there for probation violations and bench warrants.
Maureen Lorman, an education specialist at the detention center, said she likes how well Ulloa connects with the teens.
“They’re learning that you don’t have to be super good at something to enjoy it, and if there’s something you don’t know how to do, learn how to do it and take a stab at it,” Lorman said. “They’re learning that it’s OK to try something new, that it’s OK to let your guard down and have some genuine fun.”
Some of the most reserved, quiet teens have come out of their shell with Ulloa’s help, Lorman said.
“One of them has struggled academically all of his life, and now he is writing poems for Nayo,” she said. “That is huge right there. When we were having a discussion the other day, all of the sudden, he poured out his heart about his daddy and him walking out.”
Ulloa visits the class two times every week and hopes to continue the program, getting more artists, musicians and dancers from the community involved.
“Art has power,” he said. “Music is powerful.”
Follow Elkhart Truth reporter Angelle Barbazon on Twitter at @tweetangelle.