A love for music has been a constant in the life of 66-year-old Ed Rothacker, and he enjoys sharing it with aspiring musicians.
"Music has always been a part of my life and I want to pass it along," he said.
Rothacker, who lives off Roberts Road just south of the Hilliard city limits, in 2012 founded Piano 4 Patriots, a nonprofit organization that provides free music lessons to the school-age children of active military personnel.
While visiting his son in California and visiting a church, Rothacker said, he had prayed about what more he could do to help others.
Several weeks later, Rothacker said, the inspiration for Piano 4 Patriots struck him as he was looking at a digital keyboard at the Hilliard Memorial VFW Post 4931, 2436 Walcutt Road in Columbus.
He said he and others had been discussing planting flags on veterans' graves on Memorial Day.
"I thought to myself, 'But what are we doing to help our veterans who are alive?' ... I saw that keyboard (later) and knew what I had to do. ... Be careful what you ask," he said.
Since then, 15 students have received musical instruction of one kind or another through the program.
The program is not limited to piano instruction. All instruments and vocal instruction also are provided.
The sole student currently utilizing the program is 16-year-old Braden Spiriti, a junior at Hilliard Davidson High School and the son of Aaron VandenEynden, 39, a 19-year veteran of the U.S. Army.
"But I hope to help more though increased awareness and contributions," Rothacker said.
Spiriti is receiving vocal lessons from Rachel Parfenchuk at her home studio, Parfenchuk Music Studio, off Roberts Road in Columbus and just south of the Hilliard city limits. Funds from Piano 4 Patriots are used to compensate Parfenchuk.
"I want to get better at singing," said Spiriti, who is a member of Davidson's drama department.
Spiriti said he does not plan to join the school's choir or vocal ensembles but wants to train his voice for performances in musicals.
"I want to sing better to help my theater performances," he said.
Spiriti began taking lessons in the spring and meets with Parfenchuk once a week for an hour.
VandenEynden said Piano 4 Patriots has been a big help for his 12-year-old daughter, Skyler.
"After Ed gave her piano lessons my daughter really opened up," VandenEynden said. "Finding what she wanted to do was a big step in her life."
A 1997 Davidson graduate, VandenEynden enlisted in the Army in 1999, he said.
After four years of active duty, he joined the Ohio National Guard and has been deployed to Egypt, Kosovo and Kuwait. He also was stationed in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
A master sergeant, VandenEynden is based at Defense Supply Center Columbus in Whitehall. He and his family live in Columbus and the Hilliard school district.
Rothacker said he gave piano lessons himself at first but since a recent foot amputation, he has hired instructors.
He said his love for music began at age 13 when he began playing piano at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church on the west side of Cleveland.
After enlisting in the U.S. Navy and when not performing maintenance on the radar system of his supply ship, the USS Milwaukee, Rothacker played in a seven-piece band called Damn Right.
That band won a talent contest for the Navy's 6th Fleet and was runner-up in a talent contest for the entirety of the Navy, he said.
The USS Milwaukee was en route to Vietnam when orders were received for the seven-member band to report to the contest in San Diego, he said.
"They flew us from (the USS Milwaukee) in (the Philippines) to San Diego to perform in that contest," Rothacker said.
After his discharge, Rothacker said, he worked in the private sector in sales and service for such communications companies as AT&T and Qwest. But he still kept playing piano and keyboard in church, for weddings and other occasions.
"I never quit playing (and) I want children to have the opportunity to learn to play an instrument," he said.
To apply for the program, the families of school-aged children can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Contributions via PayPal can be directed to the same email address.