Alumnus helps Little Kids Rock in communications role

Do you remember your school music class? Did you play "Hot Cross Buns" on the recorder? Did you learn about quarter notes and whole notes? Are you a lifelong music maker as a result?

Penn State alumnus Keith Hejna is helping transform the lives of children by unlocking their inner music-making skills -- but not the way many elementary-aged children experienced music in school.

As communications officer for the national nonprofit Little Kids Rock, Hejna manages artist relations, communications, marketing and many fundraising initiatives that help the organization provide free training to music teachers and donate instruments and curricula to under-served public school districts across the United States. The difference between Little Kids Rock and many other nonprofits is its “modern band” curriculum.

“Picture Jack Black in the movie ‘School of Rock,’” Hejna said, “and then picture that happening in under-funded public schools all over the United States.”

Little Kids Rock trains public school teachers to put their students at the center of their own learning experience by tapping into their creativity, getting them playing on day one and encouraging improvisation and songwriting.

“Not only are we saving music programs from being cut, but we are revitalizing the way it is taught by giving kids access to guitars, drums and keyboards, and teaching them the musical styles that they love, like rock, pop, hip-hop and country,” he said.

Modern band is becoming the norm in many school districts, taking a seat at the table with traditional music programs like concert band, marching band, jazz band and choir. However, it took a lot of time and work to put Little Kids Rock on the map.

“When I started working at Little Kids Rock a year after graduating from Penn State, the organization was really small -- four employees, serving 30,000 kids -- and it had very little structure or processes in place to make it resemble a true business,” Hejna said. “We were grassroots.”

Little Kids Rock is now the nation’s leading nonprofit provider of musical instruments and instruction to U.S. public schools, serving more than 135,000 kids in 26 cities and affecting major system change in the way that music education is taught.

“Nowadays everything is geared toward testing and teaching to the test. In order for most schools in inner cities districts to get funding, their kids must do well on standardized tests. The arts and music programs are the first to get cut, and I think that is very short sighted,” Hejna said. “At Little Kids Rock, we meet students where they are. Kids in rough neighborhoods, they need something to engage with, something to make school worth coming to. This music program has taken kids who may have dropped out and gotten them to engage with and enjoy school.”

Hejna, who earned his degree in advertising/public relations from Penn State in 2008, began his career with Little Kids Rock as an intern and quickly proved his worth as a communications specialist, building the organization’s communications plan, managing cause-based marketing initiatives with companies like State Farm and JC Penney, pitching news stories, maintaining press clips, writing weekly newsletters, managing social media, making website updates, and controlling the organization’s branding and messaging.

“It’s a lot of work because several of my job functions would be full-time jobs for people at another company, and they would have a staff working for them and supporting them,” Hejna said. “I am building this department from the ground up.”

He is doing some things he never thought he would with his degree, and Hejna has been pleasantly surprised by how prepared he was to learn and manage so much so early in his career. Along with rigorous, professionally oriented classes, he credits personal attention by College of Communications faculty members and a semester-long project on a PR campaign for Centre County Special Olympics as things that made his transition to a full-time job easy.

In addition, Hejna has had several interns who have gained valuable experience working with him at Little Kids Rock, including some from Penn State who attended his presentation about nonprofit communications at a Public Relations Student Society of American regional conference.

Another major part of Hejna’s job is and building relationships with celebrities who help raise awareness for Little Kids Rock’s mission. From Bruce Springsteen to Lady Gaga and James Hetfield, Hejna has helped organize galas, school instrument deliveries, fundraising campaigns, ticket add-ons and other special collaborations that have shined a spotlight on the work Little Kids Rock does in schools.

“It is so inspiring to see some of these big celebrities engaging with young kids over something that they share together -- music,” Hejna said. “When we bring G. Love, Bootsy Collins or the Black Eyed Peas to jam with students, it’s an incredible experience for these kids. They don’t usually have adults taking interest in them, let alone celebrities.”

While some people might be awestruck when interacting with celebrities, it doesn’t phase Hejna.

“I love it,” he said. “The best part about it is that I get to see them in a different light. Most times, as a rock star or a movie star, they are hounded to do so many things that are a part of their job, but that they are not passionate about. When they get to be the people who are doing good for children by delivering instruments or teaching them something on the guitar, I see just as much excitement and enjoyment on the celebrities’ faces as I do on the kids.’”

Not only has Little Kids Rock touched the lives of many students and celebrities, but it has also been instrumental in Hejna’s life.

“I’ve had a lot of different jobs over the course of my life. I have been working since middle school in a variety of summer jobs. This is the only job that I’ve had for over a year. It is the only career I have ever had.”

Now in his sixth year at Little Kids Rock, Hejna does not see himself leaving anytime soon.

“It has totally changed my life,” he said. “Once you boil away all the details and tasks, you are still left with the mission. We transform children’s lives through music education, and that is the most rewarding part of my job. It’s my passion. I wake up feeling excited to go to work, and I go to sleep every night feeling content with what I’ve done that day, because it will impact a child.”

Last Updated August 14, 2014