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Turning hard times into harmony

By George Lewis, NBC News

A Los Angeles woman received the Presidential Citizens Medal Thursday for her work with children from the city's gang-infested neighborhoods. NBC's George Lewis reports.

Dr. Margaret Martin's enthusiasm and passion are infectious.  "We're saving kids' lives!" she proclaims.

Because of her, 1,500 youngsters from the gang-infested neighborhoods of Los Angeles are off the streets and spending their spare time in youth orchestras sponsored by the Harmony Project, which she started a decade ago. Kids accepted into the program are given free musical tutoring and instruments, provided they sign a contract that they will finish school and not drop out. On Thursday, President Obama awarded a Presidential Citizen's Medal to Martin, one of 13 Americans to receive the 2011 award.

"Our students learn discipline, persistence, confidence, accountability for the use of their time," Martin said, "and they learn to collaborate well with others in an ensemble."

Those students agree. "The music really made me focus more in school and made me concentrate," said Harmony Project violinist Andrea Garcia during a break in a Saturday practice session, "it releases my stress and I don't get angry as much."

Mizael Reyes, another violinist, chimed in. "I know that you have to put effort into music so I have to put effort into everything else if I want to accomplish anything," he said.

The temptations for kids living in gang neighborhoods are being challenged - with success - by a program called Harmony Project. Here, students talk about the program and how its keeping them off the streets.

Margaret Martin knows about hard times.  She said that as a young mother, she walked out of an abusive marriage and lived for a time in an empty office building. 

Gesturing toward herself, Martin said, "This is the face of poverty in the United States."

After she turned her own life around and earned a Ph.D. in public health, Martin resolved to give something back. And then something happened that inspired her.

She started Harmony Project, she said, because she saw a group of gang members stop at a farmer's market in front of a child playing Brahms on a violin.

That little kid was Martin's young son Max, trying to earn a few extra dollars as a sidewalk musician. At first she was scared that the gang members would try to harm him, but then she noticed they were entranced by the music and began digging into their pockets, putting money in Max's violin case.

"In that moment," she said, "they were teaching me that they would rather be doing what that kid was doing than what they were doing but they never had the chance."

Giving youngsters that chance is what drives the Harmony Project and its highly passionate, highly articulate founder.

One woman's solution to keeping kids out of gangs... create harmony. Here's more of George Lewis's interview with Margaret Martin, founder of Harmony Project.

"Kids will rise to the level of your expectations," Martin said.  "You just have to have great expectations, and they do.  They are precious resources."

She has acquired a powerful ally in Gustavo Dudamel, the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the product of the youth orchestra program in his native Venezuela.

"We couldn't do what we do without the support of our partners," Martin said.

Now, the woman who turned hard times into harmony hopes to replicate the project in other cities.  And she's having fun planning the expansion.

"It IS a lot of fun," she said, "It's the best job ever!"