It's evident that Debbie Beninati's passion lies in introducing children to the world of music. By her own admission, she’s a music education “junkie,” and delights in taking a group of beginners and turning them into a fine-tuned orchestra in less than a year.
But Beninati isn’t paid for her work at Lone Peak Elementary, where she’s headed the 61-student, before-school orchestra for the past three years. She volunteers as a music instructor because she’s dedicated to the betterment of children and the belief that music helps students in other subjects.
Plus, it’s fun, says Beninati, who has a bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Colorado and taught music while living in Texas. “You have to make it fun” for the students, the majority of whom haven’t ever touched an instrument before joining her Monday-through-Thursday orchestra. “If you don’t make it fun, you will lose them,” she says.
For her efforts, she was rewarded with a $10,000 check and a prestigious Huntsman Award for Excellence in Education. She's the sole Utah school volunteer to receive the recognition, which also was given to 10 teachers. Beninati and other Huntsman honorees were feted at a banquet in May.
Said Principal McKay Robinson in nominating Beninati for the award: "Without Debbie being so willing to spend countless hours with the students of Lone Peak, our music program would not exist."
Beninati was thoroughly surprised when she was told she’d won the award, which was announced in front of her student orchestra. “It was pure disbelief; I thought that there had surely been an error,” she said. “It was a proud moment. I was proud the kids got to be there.”
What's she going to do with the money? She doesn’t know. In fact, she didn’t even know there was a cash prize associated with the award. Maybe she'll go to Hawaii, she says. Maybe she’ll sock it away in a college fund for her children. Or, she says, maybe it will help pay for prosthetics for her daughter, Anna, who lost her legs while trying to hop a train in Colorado in 2011.
Or maybe, she says, with a smile, she'll invest in Lone Peak's music program.