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We Can If We Will
Joshua Coyne (Maryland)

As an eternal optimist and living proof that miracles happen, I do believe it is more than possible to end extreme poverty in the next 30 years. The question is, will we?

On February 1, 2007, I was asked to perform before the World Affairs Council, the largest US nonpartisan organization dedicated to fostering grassroots understanding and engagement in international affairs. The keynote speaker was former Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen. I was twelve.

1500 world leaders and dignitaries filled the room. I played and people clapped. Later, Secretary Cohen approached my mom and asked if I would play again and then speak to the attendees about how my music might help solve some of the problems in the world. I started to worry, because I had never made a public address before. I asked if I could hold my violin, and Mom and Secretary Cohen said that I could. I played. When the applause finished I looked out into a sea of people that included Secretary Cohen, Ambassador Jones, other ambassadors from around the world, executives from Anheuser-Busch, Northrop Grumman, and many other dignitaries. Holding tightly to my violin, I began.

“There are many problems in the world, and the truth is I don’t know how to solve any of them. I do know that people all over the world are hungry, and they lack adequate health care. Many have no clean water. In some countries, children have no schools and parents have no jobs. We have wars and genocide. I’m twelve years old. I play violin very well, but I don’t know how to fix any of these problems. All I know how to do is draw attention to people who do know what to do by playing my violin. The people in this room know how to do a lot of things. If all of us decide to work together doing what we do know how to do, maybe there won’t be all of these problems.”

The room went silent. I was very sad, because I thought I said the wrong thing. Whenever I played my violin, people always clapped before I even finished. I looked over at my mom, and I was very upset thinking that I had let her down. Suddenly everybody stood up and started clapping for what seemed like forever. I couldn’t believe it. Secretary Cohen ran up and joined me onstage, but he couldn’t talk because people kept clapping. When the applause concluded, Secretary Cohen told me I stole his speech. Then he said that he knew how to do a number of things, and that my mom should call him so we could work together.

As I reflected on the events of the evening, I became more aware than ever that even at twelve, I could use my talents to make a difference in the world. I started playing benefit concerts to raise money for children in Haiti. Four years later, I’m proud to say my concerts have raised more than $40,000. More importantly, other organizations agreed to help by providing much needed items such as shoes at cost. Others gave musical instruments and music free of charge. All it took was people doing what they could do and working together to make things happen.

I believe in giving back and paying forward. Each time I use my talents to help others, I receive more recognition and many opportunities. I performed a solo concert at the Kennedy Center. Marvin Hamlisch volunteered to be my mentor. After performing and speaking before the Maryland legislature in support of funding for arts education, I received a surprise invitation to perform for President Obama and 13,000 of his friends.

Three years after meeting Secretary Cohen, our paths crossed again. His wife, Janet Langhart Cohen wrote a play called Anne & Emmett. Featuring narration by Morgan Freeman, the play toured the country. I composed its musical score. I don’t like publicity, because it seems that too much of it is focused on people like me. My mom told me to use it for good, and I have learned to do that. I decided to premiere my Anne & Emmett Suite as a benefit concert for The Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts. The concert raised over $40,000 to fund arts education scholarships for at-risk DC kids.

I began my life in poverty. I was born at a motel and tested positive for cocaine at birth. My birth mother had eighteen children and dropped me off at a hospital just hours after I was born. I was placed in foster care. My last foster mother worked for Children’s Protective Services. When she discovered that the man she thought she was going to marry intended to marry somebody else, she broke my legs in eighteen places, dislocated my hips and knees, and left me untreated for ten days. I was two years old. My prospects for any kind of a future were very dim. Then I got adopted. I started my new life in a full body cast, but my world changed from that day on.

Today my potential is unlimited, because people believed in me and used their talents to help me develop mine. I’m currently one of just two undergraduate composition majors accepted at the Manhattan School of Music, one of the top music conservatories in the world. I’m still raising money so I can go, but I’m not going to give up.

I believe there are people like me all over the world. We pass them on US streets every day. Others live in third world countries. Not everybody wants to solve poverty. For those of us who do, solving extreme poverty on a world level will require a world of creative, selfless, and skilled people willing to get involved; teachers, doctors, farmers, engineers, bankers, business leaders, mentors and entrepreneurs, and even musicians. I don’t have all the answers. Nobody does. We have to work together. The question is, will we?

It's about them

Nuala Mgala

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