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Local ukulele orchestra plays for tips to give back to community

Published: Nov. 25, 2021 at 10:02 PM CST
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PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - If you have ever had a night out for dinner in the St. Andrews area, there’s a good chance you have heard the Ukulele Orchestra of St. Andrews. You can hear them play at Alice’s on Bayview in Panama City every third Wednesday of the month. They are known to play the hits you love, ukulele style.

“One of our favorite sayings is we are the best ukulele orchestra in St. Andrews, and we are the only ukulele orchestra in St. Andrews,” said Mary Jo Howard, a member of the orchestra for more than four years.

The orchestra started back in 2014 when a group of friends wanted to have fun.

“We bought 10 ukuleles and that’s really how it all started,” said Pat Syfrett, member of the Ukulele Orchestra of St. Andrews.

10 ukuleles have since turned into more than 40, strumming that happy little instrument for events all across the area.

”It has been a blast ever since,” said Howard.

But this little hobby they love has become an act of love. The orchestra eventually became a 501(c)(3) organization. Playing for tips to give back.

“We love it and it makes us feel really good to be helping the community,” said Syfrett.

”It blesses us as much as it blesses other people,” said Howard.

And a blessing they’ve been, just ask Bay High School.

Julia Ward just started teaching the ukulele to students in her music class at Bay High.

”A lot of the stuff I use in my classroom I buy out of my own pocket. But a set of classroom ukuleles is definitely not in my personal budget,” said Ward, General Music Teacher at Bay High School.

It was hard for her to imagine she could ever afford ukuleles for an entire class. But luckily, fellow Bay High teacher, Lisa Deaton, used to play in the ukulele orchestra.

”It took about a day to get a response and they (orchestra) said how many do you need,” said Deaton.

The ukulele orchestra gave them all they needed and more. Paying for a whole classroom full of ukuleles for Mrs. Deaton’s special needs class.

”They run from my class to choir, it’s wonderful,” said Deaton.

A wonderful feeling, especially when it makes a difference in students’ lives.

“I get gifts of little kids writing music and they were like we are very shocked that this is coming out of this person and I just see them blossom in ways maybe they wouldn’t outside of the classroom,” said Julia.

And for Julia, it means a little more to see her students blossom.

”That hits me really hard. Because I know, my sister doesn’t have any verbal skills at all... I know what a huge deal that is,” said Julia.

That’s why music is called the universal language.

“It’s a happy by-product when beautiful music is made but it’s first and foremost the tool,” said Julia.

And who knew one of the smallest instruments could play such a big role. All from that little orchestra, playing on those little heartstrings.

Along with ukuleles for the class, the grant money also paid for tuners.

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