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Leader of the Band

updated 08/28/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/28/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For much of his childhood Abel Delgado felt like a nobody. Growing up poor—the son of Mexican immigrants—on the outskirts of an affluent Houston neighborhood, Delgado couldn't afford the Tommy Hilfiger polo shirts that would help him fit in, wore glasses and excelled at school, making him a prime target for bullies. Trying to join in a playground game with fellow second graders, he was told, "We don't let your kind play," recalls Delgado, now 26. "I walked away and cried."

Then he discovered music. He started piano at 8, then the recorder, mastering complex compositions in a few days. His teachers were so impressed they held a schoolwide assembly featuring his solo performance. "It was the first time I felt special," Delgado says.

Now the child prodigy is all grown up—and using music to help other kids turn their lives around. As director of Los Angeles's nonprofit Harmony Project, he provides free instruments and music lessons for 250 kids ages 6 to 18 whose living circumstances range from working poor to homeless. Each week Delgado and his team—aided by private and public donations—give 75 hours of group and private lessons at a church in Hollywood, a community center or in teachers' homes. "We're not just in this to create musicians," he says. "This is all about creating human beings."

Delgado's dedication has paid off—helping the Harmony Project win the support of big players like the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which provides free concert tickets for the kids and teacher-training workshops. "He's a superb teacher," says Leni Boorstin, the orchestra's community-affairs director. "He's had amazing success changing the lives of so many kids."

One is 13-year-old Paola Cobo—who grew up watching her mother, Monic Uriarte, get beaten by her husband (they're now divorced) and was painfully withdrawn at age 9, when Delgado helped her get a violin and free lessons. "It changed her completely," says Uriarte; four months after picking up the fiddle Paola played in a solo recital before an audience of 120. "When I started playing," Paola says, "I felt anything was possible."

Just as Delgado himself did. "He's a minority, so we can relate to him," says Maela Way, 16, who along with her younger brother Scott, 11, has learned the violin through Delgado's group. "He shares his experience—and it motivates me." Adds Way's mother, Cheryl: "Abel's brilliant—you want your kids to be like him."

Delgado's own drive came from his parents: His father, also Abel, is a roofer, his mother, Maria, cleaned apartments, and while neither finished elementary school, they offered Delgado and his younger brother Fernando, 23, endless encouragement. "My mother would say, 'Amor, there's nothing you can't do,'" Delgado recalls. He took that to heart—switching in middle school from recorder to flute with a $200 used Yamaha from a pawnshop. Today, when he spots exceptional ability, he nurtures it, commuting two hours round trip twice a week to give private flute lessons to two students as well as digging into his own pocket to provide sheet music, CDs and concert tickets for the family. "I couldn't let such talent go to waste," he says.

And his help isn't limited to the musical. "When I see kids looking sad and keeping to themselves," he says, "I dig in and find out what's wrong with their lives." That's what he did with Paola, who these days is planning on a career as a concert violinist—or surgeon. "I know it's going to be a struggle," she says. "But Abel says I need to keep fighting."

Know a hero? Send suggestions to heroesamongus peoplemag.com. Please include your name, phone number and return e-mail address. For more information on the Harmony Project, visit www.harmony-project.org.

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