BEAUFORT, S.C. – A local veteran’s goal of helping his community has transformed into a program that provides free instruments and lessons.

Mike Ponder, along with some of his fellow musicians involved in the program, spoke with WSAV NOW to discuss the importance of programs like this for the military community.

“Sometimes on stage, we’ll have 28 to 40 students sitting and learning how to play,” Ponder said.

Last year, Ponder gave away over $18,000 worth of free instruments and lessons to military community members. Ponder runs SRE JAMS as well as working with Operation Encore, a veteran music project.

To receive a free instrument from the program, community members who qualify to participate must take a total of at least 12 lessons in six months. The lessons are free and the instrument is provided as well.

“It’s a great experience to be able to learn something new with some people that are like-minded,” Ryan Ill said. “I mean, that’s always the biggest part in whatever you’re doing, especially being in the Marine Corps.”

Ill got into the music scene as something for him and his wife to do together and bond with one another over.

“No matter what rank you have, you know, varying times of service from retired to just a couple years in,” Ill said. “It’s a great experience.”

The other musicians present agreed.

“It’s been my biggest way to relieve a really crappy day,” Raven McCumber said. McCumber started the program playing piano but now has started branching out to another form of music — singing.

“I’ve always known that every time I came to these jam sessions I could always learn something, I’d always have a good laugh,” she explained. She switched units recently and that caused a lot of stress.

“I’d always have somebody I could talk to about it and just rant without having the fear of being judged about it.”

Ponder echoed the sentiment that the program was good for managing stress.

“I’ve had a couple of drill sergeants come over and they’ve said it was a huge mental health time for them because they could destress,” Ponder said. “We leave the rank at the door. You could come in as a person, as a musician. You’re never judged, no matter what your level is.”

Ponder said these jam sessions aren’t just about being able to play music, they’re a moment for people to talk about what they’re going through and receive mentorship.

“There’s all kinds of things that happen during these jams,” he said.

There were other reasons the musicians enjoyed playing together.

“For me, it’s just about the spontaneous-ness of playing with Mike,” Andre Phanor said. “Honestly, it’s always trial by fire. You either make it or you don’t.”

To learn more about Mike Ponder and his work you can check out his website. You can learn more about Operation Encore here.