NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) -- Donasia Gray likes to lose herself in the soothing sound of classical violin music, not a typical escape for a child growing up in the inner city.
And Donasia, 11, not only listens to the music, she makes it.
Donasia is one of 51 city students who participate in Music Haven, a nonprofit that gives at-risk kids stringed instruments and teaches them to play -- all for free.
The students come from the poorest neighborhoods and are paired with one of the four classically trained musicians in the Haven String Quartet. The idea behind Music Haven is to empower youths through music education and to expose the underserved communities to beautiful concert music.
"We want to be part of a community that doesn't have access to these kinds of resources,'' said Tina Lee Hadari, the Yale School of Music graduate who founded the program in 2006.
Hadari, who as a member of the quartet plays and teaches the violin, said the group's mission is to inspire and nurture at-risk youths through instrument lessons and performance.
After all, building strong, vibrant communities is part of Music Haven's mission.
"The idea is that it's just a whole musical celebration,'' Hadari said of an upcoming performance. "It's the idea that music can bring all kinds of people together.''
Music Haven takes students on a first-come, first-served basis from the Newhallville, Dixwell, the Hill and Dwight neighborhoods.
"We chose them because they are the highest poverty rate. They have the highest rate of high school dropouts. They have the most challenges,'' she said.
It's a rare opportunity for children in underserved neighborhoods to participate in an organization that was just named one of the top after-school arts programs in the country by President Barack Obama's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
Music Haven was one of 50 finalists for a 2011 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. The final winner gets to attend an award ceremony at the White House held by first lady Michelle Obama.
Music Haven offers after-school lessons twice a week in violin, viola or cello. The instrument is provided for free to the child. Half of the kids stay after school for lessons Tuesdays and Thursdays at Davis Street Magnet School, and half get their lessons Wednesday and Friday at Wexler-Grant School.
The students are divided up so that each instructor has 12 to 13 pupils. When it began, Music Haven had 24 students. That number has doubled to 51 and there are an equal number of students on a waiting list.
The budget for Music Haven relies on individual donations, foundation and government grants and some income from performances. Most of the instruments are donated, many of them through Wallingford violin maker Ute Brinkmann.
The instructors, all members of the Haven String quartet, have advanced music degrees and impressive performance histories. Along with Hadari, the quartet includes Yaira Matyakubova on violin, Colin Benn on viola and Matt Beckmann on cello.
They practice in a former garage wedged between a Papa John's pizza restaurant and a store on Whalley Avenue. But the set-up of the studio, behind a set of garage doors with big windows, gives passers-by a good view into the headquarters of Music Haven.
"We wanted something that was transparent to the neighborhood,'' Hadari said.
In addition to instrument lessons, the quartet performs concerts as a way to engage the community. Hadari draws from her favorite philosopher and author, Maxine Greene, to come up with the words for Music Haven's ideal role in the community.
"Arts experiences awaken our imagination and challenge us to think about how the world should be, instead of how it is,'' she said.
Through lessons and practice, students learn discipline and concentration. They must use critical thinking to work through a difficult piece, a skill that easily transfers to the classroom.
Donasia can see the transformation taking place in herself through learning the violin.
"When you start off a piece and you think you can't do it, when you get through it, you are so proud of yourself,'' she said.
Christopher Burney, 10, who goes to Amistad Academy, said he was so nervous the first time he played a solo on his cello that he started perspiring. But the experience made him stronger, he said.
"I felt proud of myself because I didn't think I could do it,'' he said.
For Shauna Wilson, 10, who attends Davis Street School, the experience has broadened her horizons.
"I learned so much music that I never knew existed,'' she