The Music Man: Robert Parker on the Power of Toys and Music

Bringing Christmas cheer

Special to Native News Online

Published December 21, 2016

For Robert “Freightrain” Parker, Christmas is more than a holiday—it’s an opportunity to help struggling Native families while creating opportunities for aspiring young musicians in the Buffalo-Niagara region. This year, Parker’s toy drive has collected or purchased over 1,000 toys for Native kids in need.

“People really do want to help and they love to give—whether it’s toys or money,” says Parker (Seneca) a nationally-renowned roots/soul guitarist, bassist, vocalist, songwriter and producer who grew up in Buffalo, New York. “It’s great for our kids, many of whom would not have Christmas and would go without.”

After living many years in Florida, Parker—who is the first Native American to be inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame—got the idea to host a holiday toy drive at his local gigs after having moved back home. Patrons could either bring a toy or donate money, with all proceeds going toward the purchase of toys for Buffalo’s urban Native children.

“It started out with me thinking: What can I do to help the kids in our communities? So every year around the beginning of December, I would haul a big box around to all my shows and collect toys and drag them around,” says Parker, chuckling. “But this year, I just decided to have one big event—our first annual Christmas Jam and Toy Drive—and we had a great response, which was thrilling.”

“Freightrain” jamming

What started as a modest toy drive has now grown into a regional effort that also provides merrier Christmases for kids in other Native communities, including Tuscarora, Tonawanda and Cattaraugus in Western New York. Parker says that approximately 1,000 toys have been either collected or purchased, and will go toward helping over 500 children.

This year, Parker is expanding the mission of the toy drive to partner with Native American Community Services of Erie and Niagara Counties, Inc., (NACS) to offer free music lessons to Native kids in the Buffalo region. Parker will be purchasing both guitars and traditional Native musical instruments, including water drums and rattles. NACS will launch the scholarship application process in January. Lessons are set to begin in March 2017.

“For the past five years, Robert has worked tirelessly to provide a better Christmas for our Native children,” says NACS executive director Michael N. Martin. “And we are proud to be a partner in offering music lessons to our kids from both him and other world-class musicians.”

For Parker, the opportunity to give back to the community where he grew up is a reflection of both the traditional Native value of sharing and the healing power of music as medicine.

“I started this project five years ago and it’s grown to the point where we can now branch out into other areas and help kids express themselves and learn through music, which was always a very powerful influence on me as a young person,” says Parker. “I was in a band in high school, and I know that if I hadn’t been involved in music that I would not have graduated. It kept me motivated and it kept me in school. Music saved me and it saved a lot of kids. So we want to share that gift with the kids in our communities.”

What began as an effort to provide Christmas toys for Native children is now paying unexpected dividends, says Parker.

“The kids give more to me than I give to them,” he says. “And we’re extremely grateful to those who help us make this toy drive successful—because all kids deserve to have smiles on their faces for one day.”

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