Have a guitar gathering dust in the cupboard under the stairs? Colin Greef is asking.
Over the past three years, the “73-years-young” Canberra retiree has restored and donated 250 guitars and ukuleles to people doing it tough, whether they’re kids who have lost everything in bushfires or veterans struggling to cope with normal life.
Colin is now down to his last three, and he’s asking locals for more.
It all began during his time at sea – 11 years in the Royal Navy and 22 in the Royal Australian Navy – serving on everything from frigates and destroyers to an aircraft carrier. He would listen to his fellow crewmates churn out country music on a mix of guitar, banjo and mandolin.
“I asked one to show me a few chords and then my wife Avril bought me a second-hand guitar, and it all started from there,” he explains.
When he was posted to HMAS Albatross in Nowra in 1982, he realised how little support there was for children with special needs when a friend gave birth to a son with Down Syndrome. Together with the boy’s dad and other naval personnel, he joined a bicycle ride from Brisbane to Nowra every year to raise money and awareness. Within 10 years, the 1150-km trek had raised almost a million dollars for the cause.
After leaving the Navy and retiring from a job in the private sector as a data manager, Colin joined the music groups of two veteran support organisations – Soldier On and the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service (now Open Arms).
“I had to find something to do,” he says.
The groups met once a week, and when he realised what effect something so simple could have on people scarred by difficulties, he knew exactly what to do with the spare guitars he had lying about at home.
“I didn’t want to take them down the Green Shed, but when I came across a couple of veterans who wanted to get into the music group and learn to play the guitar, I gave them my spares,” he says.
“The joy they got out of them – it blew my mind. And I thought, ‘I could do this as a hobby’.”
Colin teamed up with Soldier On to turn this hobby into something bigger. Over the next two years, he and a group of volunteer veterans sourced, restored and donated more than 150 guitars and ukuleles across the region.
Up to 10 went to the Police Citizens Youth Club (PCYC) to equip their music program, and six to the Early Morning Centre (EMC) homelessness service. The Daydream Machine, a music school for disadvantaged kids set up by ACT Local Hero of the Year 2022 Luke Ferguson, also scored some.
In early 2020, when the bushfires ravaged communities along the South Coast, Colin and the others travelled from Nowra to Eden, hand-delivering the guitars to children who had lost everything.
Soldier On no longer sponsors him, but close friend and veteran firefighter Rod McIntyre helps him repair the guitars. The pair have just returned from “giving away a lot of guitars” in Forbes, where the residents have been devastated by flood.
“While visiting a small school there, with 17 students and two teachers, we discovered one of the teachers, a guitarist, had lost everything, including his guitar,” he says.
“We’re now working on ways to get a guitar delivered to the school as a surprise gift for him.”
Before COVID-19, Colin would also meet with a group of homeless people in Civic every Tuesday to play instruments together.
“I was really getting on well with those people, and the talent was amazing. There was one guy there who could play classical piano. It’s just unfortunate they’re on the wrong side of drugs in many cases.”
He describes the reactions as “just incredible”.
“I just love to see the looks on the faces of the veterans and kids – it’s priceless.”
Further back in the supply chain, Colin is blown away by the generosity.
“I can’t thank the Canberra public enough for being so generous with their donations,” he says.
Colin is now setting to work on several guitars he’s received in the past week, with plans to team up with several Canberra charities in the lead-up to Christmas.
“Hopefully, we can find some disadvantaged children who really want a guitar for Christmas.”
Contact Colin on 0455 143 581 if you have a guitar or ukelele you’d like to donate.