For the past 20 years, a West Side couple has been working to bring music and arts to communities around Garfield Park through the Chicago West Community Music Center. Husband and wife Howard and Darlene Sandifer founded the center because they felt that the West Side didn’t have much in a way of “high quality music education programs” and quality “community-based fine arts instruction.” 

What started as one class geared toward family grew into several programs where teens can learn how to play various musical instruments, sing, dance and understand what it takes to succeed in the music industry. The couple said that they have been gratified with all the impact they have been able to make and they intend to keep going for as long as they can.

Howard is a musician and a songwriter and Darlene’s professional background was mostly in HR and communications. According to her LinkedIn profile, she is the one who helps place the students into programs and connects them to job opportunities.  

Originally, the couple cobbled together funding from their own savings, as well as from donations from friends, relatives and supporters. As years went on, they were able to get funding from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events, as well as the Illinois Arts Council and After School Matters. 

Howard said that funding is still the center’s biggest challenge.

“There are so many good organizations doing important work [on the West Side] and these same organizations are going after many of the same foundations to seek assistance with funding,” he said.

The center started out with one program, an ‘inter-generational” music class where youth could learn how to play guitar alongside their parents and grandparents. The original class had eight members.

The couple’s big break came when they were able to get into the Chicago Park District’s Artists in Residence program, which allowed them to get office and classroom space in one Garfield Park’s most iconic buildings — the Golden Dome fieldhouse, 100 N. Central Park Ave. This allowed them to hold more classes and other programs. 

Today, the center offers classes teaching students how to play violin, cello, harp and guitar. The classes also teach the ins and outs of the music business, among other skills. The center also works offers off-site programs.

Howard said that, as of 2017, the center has taught around 750 students. He said that the majority of the students came from West and East Garfield Parks, but that the center has also trained students from nearby West Side neighborhoods and beyond.

“[We have had] students come from adjoining neighborhoods, including Austin, North Lawndale, Little Village, Humboldt Park and as far away as Elgin, Aurora and Arlington Heights,” Howard said.

While the couple hoped the center would go over well, Howard said they were still pleasantly surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response from the community. He said that he and his wife tried to involve residents with every aspect of the center. 

When asked about the impact the program has had on the students, he forwarded a copy of an essay alumna Erika Wilson, a news producer, wrote on Aug. 15. She recalled that she joined the center in 2008 as a freshman in high school. 

That year, her family moved to the West Side. After getting into a fight at a CPS school on the North Side, she was expelled, and her parents got her into a Holy Trinity High School, a West Town parochial school. Wilson wrote that the school and the center made her a better artist and a better person.

“I remember the singing, the dancing, the resilience, generosity and overall healthy behavior,” she wrote. “I remember meeting Lupe Fiasco and working on his ‘Little Man Project.’ I am a firm believer in the Law of Attraction and because for over three years I was active in CWCMC, what I practiced became my remedy.”

The center is currently recruiting members for its symphony orchestra. Sandifer said that the orchestra has performed all over Chicago, and even as far away as Paris and Shanghai. He said that he and his wife are fully committed to serving the community, and they are always looking for opportunities to do more. 

“We are in the community for the long run,” Sandifer said. “We look forward to continue providing the highest quality fine arts programs possible.”


Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...