Appleton native Leah Witthuhn is a 2016 Celebrating Volunteers recipient of a Youth Scholarship Award.
Music lessons and instruments can be expensive, and many local students might not get the chance to learn and perform if not for Appleton East High School grad Leah Witthuhn.
With the help of her parents and many community mentors, Witthuhn created The Music Mission, a nonprofit which helps donors in the Fox Valley provide new or gently used instruments to students who can’t afford them, plus music lessons to boot. That was six years ago, when she was only 14.
“A lot of people looked at me and probably thought, ‘you’re cute, but you’re never going to do this,’ but I knew I had to help those kids who fell through the cracks and couldn’t afford to participate in band or take beginner lessons,” explains Witthuhn, who just earned her Bachelors degree in psychology with a minor in criminal justice at Carroll University in Waukesha. “The way the students’ faces transform when you put the gift of music into their hands is worth it.”
Witthuhn first recognized that transformation with one of her first students, who was struggling. “She was having suicidal thoughts and she wasn’t really talking. But by the time I was done with lessons with her, she was writing her own music. She performed her own song at her recital and got a standing ovation!”
With help from the Community Foundation, Heid Music, Rock Garden Studios and numerous other mentors, Witthuhn began making inroads with local youth charity organizations who could serve as umbrella organizations for accepting donated funds for the budding charity.
The Music Mission became an official 501(c)(3) tax-exempt non-profit organization in 2015, and one year later Witthuhn received the Youth Scholarship Award sponsored by Community First Credit Union and presented during Celebrating Volunteers, an annual celebration of volunteerism co-sponsored by the Community Foundation.
Word spread rapidly, and The Music Mission received emails from beyond the Fox Valley. Witthuhn was especially surprised to hear from a boarding school in Cambodia, whose students received instruments and online music lessons from The Music Mission. They thanked Witthuhn’s team by sharing a video they made performing their music. Since then the organization has served students in other parts of the U.S., Haiti and Guatemala.
Witthuhn will head to Waukesha to work as a case manager for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), helping homeless residents transition to stable housing. She’ll start grad school at Marquette University, and will take time this summer to promote her mission. She’ll also be scouting for new leaders to help run The Music Mission and continue to help transform lives.
Celebrating Volunteers honors the volunteer spirit of Paul and Elaine Groth of Appleton, who died in an automobile accident in 1997. In addition to NBC26, media sponsors include WHBY radio and The Post Crescent.