I met Sundiata Kata more than 15 years ago, and he made an impact on me. There’s nothing unique about that because thousands of other people can say the same thing.
Sundiata has been changing lives through music for 50 years without ever changing jobs.
"I’ve been at the San Diego Center for Children since 1969. I’ve been told it’s the best gig in town," he said, laughing.
It’s no surprise he hasn’t left this job. It combines two of his favorite things: working with kids and music.
"We’re all wired for music, and music is healing," he said.
He’s in the right place, because a lot of kids at the San Diego Center for Children need a little healing.
The center helps kids dealing with mental, emotional and behavioral disorders, and Sundiata says, for a lot of them, this is their last hope.
"These kids are very, very resilient," he said. "We just want them to release, and have a good time and feel good about themselves, and forget about what’s going on in their heads."
There is plenty of evidence these days that music can help do that. However, Sundiata says it was a much different story when he started 50 years ago.
"There was no research; there were no studies," he said. "There were no tools to use to gauge what music does."
He doesn’t need any study to tell him the power music can have on kids.
He sees it in their faces every day.
"Joy, happiness -- you know, freedom," he said.
The San Diego Center for Children was founded 130 years ago. It’s the oldest nonprofit for kids in San Diego and Sundiata has been there for almost half of that time.
The music building at the center is named after him. And his impact goes beyond that place.
I met Sundiata at Rady Children’s Hospital around 2002, where he was part of the healing arts program, playing music to patients and their families. He could walk into a room full of kids and parents who had every reason in the world to be angry, or feel hopeless, and make them smile.
Again, stories like that about him are not unique.
Sundiata has made his mark across our city. Twice, the city has proclaimed a special day in his honor.
But he the public accolades are not what drives him.
He says the real reason he keeps showing up to work is the same as it was 50 years ago: "What I do is try to give them a voice."
And that never gets old.
"Every day is a miracle. Every day something is happening with these kids to change their life," he said. "And that’s what our mission is; that’s what our goal is."
To learn more about the work happening at the San Diego Center for Children or if you want to donate to the nonprofit's programs, visit this website.