Who are the Little Warriors and how did they begin?
The Winona Little Warriors Drumline is a diverse group of kids that live and attend school right here in Winona. The kids range in age from 8 years old to 15 years old. Many of the kids live right around the East End Rec, however some of them come from the West end of Winona as well. A vast majority of these children come from low-income homes as well. These are kids who don’t necessarily like to participate in sports or skateboarding, which seems to be the only activities available to the youth in Winona. Also, most of the activities or places for kids to go cost a fee of some sort. Unfortunately, more often than not, families can’t afford it.
My husband, Andre, grew up in Chicago and for most of his young school-aged years he performed as a Drum Major for the marching bands in his schools. He also was a drum major at Jackson State University while he attended college. He believes that it taught him not only a love for music; but it really taught him how to be a strong leader, how to work as a team to create something amazing, and also how to be disciplined. After moving to Minnesota he started a well-known drill team marching band in St. Paul, MN called the St. Paul Falcons. He started it in 1991 with just a few kids and it grew over the years to around 130 kids! They would perform and compete in events all around Minnesota, and even in other states.
Andre has lived in Winona for more than 20 years and it has always been a dream of his to bring something like that to the youth in Winona. Every year in the Steamboat Days Parade there are drummers that come from all over the place to perform, but he just knew that there was so much talent in the kids that actually live right here in Winona! He has also always had a passion for mentoring kids, especially those coming from homes that don’t have a lot of financial means or even homes where there isn’t a father figure present. He has a strong understanding of the importance and impact of having a strong male figure or mentor in a child’s life. He wanted to start a program in Winona for the kids who were looking for something fun and exciting to be a part of. It is often said that music is a “universal language” and it truly has the tendency to bring out some great skills in a child if presented to them the right way.
We actually live kiddy-corner from the East Rec and have a son that is 14 years old and a daughter who is 9 years old. We would always let them go play outside with all of the kids that live in the area. So most of the time, all of the kids would meet at the park right behind the Rec. After awhile, as kids usually do, they got bored with the park, which to be honest, really isn’t all that exciting. At that point, boredom led the kids to start being on their phones outside looking at inappropriate things for their ages, and even led to bullying and fighting with each other; all because of a sheer lack of anything productive to do. Our son and a friend of his actually ended up getting into a fight there because all of the kids around them were encouraging them to do it. Not only was it horrible that two friends would fight for what seemed like entertainment to some of the older kids, but it was recorded on someone’s phone and made it to the vice principal at Winona Middle School.
It was that incident that really made Andre say, “It is time for me to start this drumline!” Even though the Rec was open for the kids to go inside and socialize or play in the gym- there weren’t any actual supervised programs happening at that time. Andre walked over to the Rec and approached Lydia Boysen, who was the supervisor at the East Rec at the time, and asked her if there was any way that we would be allowed to start our drumline and hold practice in the small studio room. She was very excited about the idea and after talking to her boss Patrick Menton, we were given permission to come in and practice on certain days of the week at a certain time.
We started the Winona Little Warriors at the end of September 2019. We did not have any drums at all when we started! Instead, we had bright green Menards buckets and some drumsticks! We just knew that if we started with at least those buckets, that we would eventually find a way to raise money to get drums for each of the kids. It wasn’t shocking that kids were lining up to join- it was something that most of the children in Winona haven’t really seen! And what is truly remarkable is that almost all of the kids hadn’t ever picked up a pair of drum sticks prior to starting the drumline! To see how they sounded in the beginning to how they sound now- is truly a sight to see and a huge accomplishment for all of them.
What is your goal for the Little Warriors?
When the drumline was started, it was our goal to eventually perform in the Steamboat Days Parade. We were actually formally invited to perform in the Steamboat Days Parade this year- and then COVID happened. It really prevented us from performing in events that we had already lined up. So ultimately, by next summer we are hoping that the current state of things changes for the better so that we can finally perform in Steamboat Days for the residents of Winona! We would also like to keep doing local parades, events, and half-time games for the schools.
It is also our goal to find an organization or sponsor that will help to invest in this program so that we can get better equipment, uniforms, and have additional funding to be able to accommodate more kids. We are also hoping that with the renovation of the East Rec, that we will have more space to practice in. We started in the small studio room, but once they opened the doors up for us to come back to practice after the shutdown, we have been using the gym and it has been really great!
When we started the drumline we also had the idea of being able to take the kids on different field trips to places like the Minnesota Zoo, Valley Fair, and museums. These are places that many of the kids in the drumline may not get the chance to experience otherwise.
How are the Little Warriors funded?
Currently we do not have an organization or sponsor that funds the Little Warriors. All of the drums, sticks, mallets, drum pads, cymbals, and tambourines we’ve purchased were paid for a couple different ways. Truthfully, we have used a lot of our own personal money to invest in this program because we believe in it so much. We have spent in the ballpark range of $3,000 of our own money on this drumline, and that doesn’t include how much we spend on food or snacks for all of the kids when we have performances in different places. We also have a GoFundMe me page that we posted on the Facebook page that we created called Winona’s Little Warriors Drumline. Through the GoFundMe page we were able to raise about $1,700. We also raised donations by performing at the Winona State University Game Day Experience events during October & November 2019.
We would really like to find someone who is able and willing to invest in the kids and this program! The kids that are in the drumline absolutely love it and they love to go places and perform for people! They deserve to have the opportunity to play on really great quality drums and equipment and also to feel that they have the community showing support for what they are doing.
How does this group impact the youth of the community?
Aside from teaching these kids the skill of how to play the drums, and showing them something that is different, fun and engaging; our primary goal when we started this program was to help educate, empower, and uplift the kids in the community. We also strive to instill in each of them the importance of working as a team, why having discipline is instrumental in everything that they do, the importance of having respect for authority and to look out for one another wherever they go. You have to keep in mind that this drumline brought together the bullies and the kids that were getting bullied, and had them really work together and learn to embrace each other’s differences. These were kids that perhaps wouldn’t have ever been in the same “social circles” at school, but they have come together for something that they have found that they all love- drumming.
We also do what is called the Circle of Empowerment where we invite someone from different career fields to come and share about why they chose their career in their respective field, why education is extremely important and challenges that they faced along the way. The first guest we had come and talk to the kids was a professional boxer and MMA fighter. We allow the kids to ask the speaker questions that interest them. We also take time out of every practice to sit down and we go around the group and ask each child how their day was, what was good or bad about it, or let them talk about anything else they feel like sharing with the group.
Lastly, we have always offered personal tutoring sessions for the kids in the drumline. Math seems to be a subject that many of the kids tend to need extra guidance with. We have the kids who would like help with any school work, no matter what subject it is, to bring their homework or assignments that they are struggling with to practice. We make sure that we give them as much individual help as we possibly can to ensure that we are helping them to grow academically.
What events have the Little Warriors performed at?
As I mentioned earlier, we really got our first taste of performing during the Winona State Game Day Experience events last fall. We were at every single event they had- no matter if it was sunny or cold! The interesting thing about performing at those events is that it is somewhat of a tailgating-type of setting. And at the time, we were having to carry chairs for them to sit and play on their Menards buckets; so it took a great deal of togetherness and discipline for us to set up in one area and perform, and then grab everything and move as one large group, to the next area. At the very last event for the season, our kids were asked to march with the college drummers to lead into the Homecoming Parade! Playing at WSU- we met a lot of great people to network with. That is when we were officially invited to perform in the Steamboat Days Parade.
After performing a couple of times there, we were asked to perform at the community Thanksgiving dinner event here at the Rec. We were also invited to perform at the basketball half-time game at the Winona Senior High School. We were signed up to perform for the Winona Middle School Talent Show, however that never came to pass as COVID had just started to take over. We were also set to perform at the Frozen Music Festival and the Midwest Music Festival as well. Since the pandemic though, we have done 2 “Pandemic Parades”- one on the East end of Winona and one on the West end of Winona. We partnered with the Winona Friendship Center and Bridges Health – Winona for those. We have one more that we will be doing in Goodview on this coming Monday, Sept. 28th.
Probably our last performance for the year (at least outdoors) will be the drive-in movie event taking place on Saturday, Oct. 10th. We hope that there are some events that we get invited to do indoors for the remainder of the year and while it’s cold… but more importantly we pray that COVID really starts to lessen with each passing day so that we can get back on track and perform at all of the awesome outdoor summer events that Winona usually has.