Veazie Community School Music Director Michael Arell leads band students in a song after administrators announce the school was awarded a $30,000 grant from Walmart Corporation. Credit: Nina Mahaleris

VEAZIE, Maine — Veazie Community School Music Director Mike Arell opened his email to a message he thought was too good to be true.

It was from a store manager of the Walmart store in Bangor, who wrote to tell him that the national office had selected the school for a $30,000 grant this year.

The news came two weeks ago — not long after Arell and Matt Cyr, the school’s superintendent and principal, had started raising money to better equip the school’s growing music program.

He checked the message again. Then he called the store. To his surprise, it was real.

The grant is from a nationwide community engagement program Walmart Corporation rolled out this year to support local communities.

It chose Veazie specifically, after seeing how people from around the nation rallied around the small school to support its efforts to improve the music program. Both locals and people from around the country — who may have never even been to Veazie before — jumped in to help after reading about the school’s situation online.

Soon, instruments shipped from other states began showing up at the school. Some people even purchased brand new instruments to donate, and others gave what they could in cash.

By December 2019, the school had accumulated 35 instruments, twice more than what they started with a couple years ago. Hearing about the program’s fundraising success, the Walmart in Bangor gave $1,000 to help, too.

On Wednesday, March 3, Cyr announced the newest grant award, for $30,000, in a student assembly, which he and Arell had carefully kept a secret from students and faculty for weeks.

The school hasn’t decided exactly what to spend the latest grant money on, but Arell said he’s not in a hurry to burn through it. The school may spend about half the money on acoustic shells for concerts and musicals, and save the remaining $15,000 for future use to keep students involved in music.

A lifelong musician and now teacher, this is Arell’s second year of leading the music program for the K-8 school — which has also struggled to keep a consistent music director over the years.

“What they really wanted was continuity,” he said.

Arell’s main goal is to give all students an opportunity to get involved in music if they have the desire. A key part of the program’s success — besides having enough instruments for students — is developing relationships with the kids, so they stay interested.

Out of the school’s 146 students, about 70 of them participate in the program, through either band or chorus.

Under Arell’s leadership, students are exploring their musical interests, with some learning to play two or three instruments. One such student is 12-year-old Camden Brown, who joined the music program in fourth grade — as soon as he could. He plays trumpet, piano and percussion.

It was an exciting and unusual experience for Brown and many music students alike to learn that a major corporation had donated money to their school, and that people from all over the United States donated money and instruments to support their program.

Seventh-grader Duncan Carlisle had a similar reaction. “I was really shocked,” he said. Growing up in a musical family, Carlisle was encouraged by his parents to learn to play an instrument, so he chose drums.

When he started in fourth grade, the program had one full drum set. Today, it has four.

Through music, Arell said students learn important lessons about perseverance and commitment that will stick with them, even if they don’t pursue a career in it.

“It follows you through your life,” he said.