Alice Pfaelzer and Emma Endres-Kountz founded the Merit School of Music in 1979 in an effort to combat the disappearance of music education in public schools. Today, more than 35 years later, the school serves more than 5,000 children both on-campus and off. On May 10, Merit held its annual gala where two distinguished alumni and Northern Trust Corporation were honored.
Originally, the fundraising goal for the gala was set at $1.25 million, but as the date approached, the goal was readjusted to $1 million. Director of Development Rita McLennon says checks are still coming in from donors, so the final total won’t be released for a few weeks — but it’s looking very positive.
“We’re really pleased to bring in so much contributed revenue in just one event,” says President and Executive Director Charles Grode. “The gala was really exciting; it was a great celebration of [Merit’s] accomplishments in the past and an exciting celebration of its future.”
Beyond their financial goals, Grode and McLennon wanted to make sure that the story of Merit alumni — both students and families — was told, highlighting their successes and holding them up as examples of what Merit students can accomplish. In doing so, Grode says he hopes both longtime and new donors can reinforce a connection with the school and see for themselves the impact it has had upon the community.
“Another goal I had as well [was] I wanted to make sure we were acknowledging where the organization comes from and I think we did that beautifully in the renaming of our financial aid fund for my predecessor, Duffie Adelson,” Grode says. “We are continuing to build a future that’s really consistent with where we’ve come from and one that expands on our unique combo of inclusivity and excellence and the rich diversity of our student body.”
Some of that student body was in attendance at the gala as the entertainment.
“Being able to hear and see our students share their tremendous talent with our guests really moved me,” Grode says. “They were really focused and enjoying performing and sharing.”
The evening featured a vocal jazz ensemble, a woodwinds trio, a brass ensemble and a choral performance.
The students also performed with the honorees, brothers Demarre and Anthony McGill, two Merit alums who are now the principal flutist of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, respectively.
“I would say my favorite part of the evening was seeing our honorees perform with our students; it was really powerful,” McLennon says. “What was equally powerful was watching the honorees rehearse with the students and how impressed they were with the quality and level of performance the kids gave them.”
Previously, Merit has honored other individuals who have experienced great success after graduation or donors who have been generous to the school. Given the success of the McGill brothers, the board of directors decided the gala would be the best opportunity to call out both their personal and musical achievements as well as the support they received from their parents.
“It’s their story and it’s their parents’ story,” Grode says. “We know Merit can provide great opportunity musically and personally, but it’s essential to have parental support to make the most of that opportunity.
“Someone has to get you to lessons, help you practice, make sure you take care of your instrument, and can audition for conservatories or college. By celebrating what the four of them have given and accomplished, it was a way to pay tribute to them but also call attention to what’s really special about Merit.”
A unique aspect of the Merit School is that emphasis is placed not only on musical potential, but also personal and professional potential; each path is equally celebrated. Merit prides itself on working hard to both remove barriers and provide opportunities in a student’s life and the McGill brothers are a perfect example of that philosophy.
Additionally, McLennon notes that Merit has been especially focused on working with neighborhoods around the West Loop campus and attempting to strengthen that part of their program, and that’s how the McGills found the school — through the neighborhood.
The brothers also frequently return to the school to do master classes and mentor the students, which made them an easy choice as this year’s honorees.
“Their parents in particular have continued to be involved with Merit even though their sons left our school many years ago,” McLennon says. “The great spirit and community that Merit has built goes beyond just kids coming to school every week. They really stay in touch with the school; they really give back.”
Northern Trust Corporation also received the corporate sponsorship award at the gala after years of donations to the school. The company has not been previously honored by Merit and Grode says both he and the entire board were very pleased to be able to finally honor their years of generous support.
“They have been great supporters and it was very much a partnership approach,” Grode says.
The award, which has only been given for the past three years, is presented for overall involvement in the arts and arts education. Northern Trust, however, has given not only financially but has also provided Merit with a board member and has offered charitable and strategic planning advice.
“They give us the full package as a really dedicated supporter of the Merit School and of arts overall,” McLennon says. “We were thrilled that [CEO] Rick Waddell came and accepted that award; that was really fantastic.”
Moving forward, McLennon says as director of development she hopes to raise the money Merit needs to ensure that the best possible programming can be provided to as many students as possible. Half of the school’s operating budget goes to student support: tuition-free lessons, financial aid and low-cost instrument rental.
Additionally, Merit will continue to push on fundraising as they come to the conclusion of a strategic planning effort that will take them through the next three years to the school’s 40th anniversary.
“We really want to use this anniversary as an opportunity to lay out a clear plan,” Grode says. “They say when you hit 40, 50 follows a lot more quickly. So we’re focused on strategic fundraising and strategic planning.”
Grode, who has only been at Merit since September of 2015, says he couldn’t be happier at his new position.
“It has given me a real renewed appreciation for what it takes for young people to really dedicate themselves to music and grow through it,” Grode says. “It’s been really powerful to see how music brings kids from all backgrounds across Chicago here and you see them getting to know each other and understand each other and work together and strive for something through music.”
On a personal note, Grode and his wife are West Loop residents. Now that he works in the West Loop as well, he’s much more familiar with the area and its residents.
“I love that I feel like I live in a neighborhood, and Merit has helped me have that new understanding,” Grode says.
McLennon, who worked in legal aid for 36 years, says that nothing compares to the experience of coming to a place where children have found their niche and are truly engaged in not only their musical studies but also with the other students and the adults there to support them.
“It’s just an everyday high,” McLennon says. “It’s inspiring to see how much the parents sacrifice to make sure their kids can come here, to see how hard these children work and how dedicated and disciplined they are.
“We know what kind of an impact our program has on individual students and families; we know that we keep them safe and focused and disciplined while they’re pursuing their dreams.”
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