Gifts are always nice, but when that gift is an electric guitar, it can leave you speechless. That was the initial reaction of Glen Cove third-grader Penelope Neophytou when she was presented with a Les Paul by Sea Cliff rock band Antigone Rising at a concert last Saturday.
“She was in utter shock,” Ody Cruz Neophytou, Penelope’s mother, said of the gift. “It was very moving for us to see.”
During Antigone Rising’s performance at the Be the Rainbow pride event in Port Washington, the band called Penelope onto the stage, and she sang along to its hit song “Game Changer.” When it ended, guitarist Cathy Henderson gave Penelope the Epiphone Les Paul Special.
“We know how much you love music and how we loved music at your age,” singer Nini Camps told the 9-year-old, “and we wanted to do something special for you so that music could be in your life forever. We thought maybe you might want this guitar, from us to you. We can arrange a lesson to get you started.”
For nearly a decade, the all-female Antigone Rising has been doing outreach programs with schoolchildren around the world through its nonprofit, Girls Rising. It was founded in 2012, after the band served as cultural ambassadors for the U.S. government, and the musicians have traveled the world, inspiring girls and LGBTQ kids and encouraging them to overcome adversity and pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, the arts and math.
Henderson and her sister, drummer Kristen Ellis-Henderson, grew up in Glen Cove, and have incorporated their outreach into the Glen Cove and North Shore school districts. They have also held Girls Rising festivals in Glen Cove and Sea Cliff, where Ellis-Henderson and Camps live, showcasing up-and-coming young artists and featuring panel discussions with women who have chosen careers in traditionally male-dominated fields.
Penelope learned about Antigone Rising through a Girls Rising outreach program at Deasy Elementary School in 2019. The school had been awarded the Joan Jett & The Blackhearts Grant for firstgraders to fund field trips and any instrumental rentals the children needed, according to Ellis-Henderson.
“We invited those kids to come to our Girls Rising Festival at Morgan Park in Glen Cove,” Ellis-Henderson said. “They came and sang ‘Game Changer’ with us, and Penelope just popped. She knew all the words, she was front and center, holding the microphone, singing her little heart out. She just stole our hearts in that moment.”
The following fall, the band held another Girls Rising program at Deasy, then hosted a virtual outreach through the Glen Cove Youth Bureau’s After 3 program, which Penelope has been attending. “That little group had been writing songs together, and they performed for us over Zoom,” Ellis-Henderson said. “We realized Penelope was into writing music and pursuing music in a way.”
After several months of focusing on Girls Rising and virtual outreach — including a series of video podcasts called Girls Rising Virtual Connect — Antigone Rising began recording from its members’ home studios and started a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the marketing and release of a new album. “One of the things we offered were autographed guitars that were being donated to us,” Ellis-Henderson explained. “One of the people who pledged for the guitar requested it be given to someone we met through the Girls Rising program.”
They immediately thought of Penelope, Ellis-Henderson said, adding, “She’s the sweetest kid you’ve ever met.”
A student at Landing Elementary School, Penelope has been learning remotely the entire year, and the After 3 program has been a good way for her to interact with other children, her mother said, even if it’s on Zoom. Cruz Neophytou said she was notified by a teacher about last weekend’s concert, and knew Penelope would be called on stage, but never expected such a gift. She and her husband did their best to keep it a surprise, letting Penelope know they were attending a pride event and that Antigone Rising would be there. They even made a special rainbow dress for her to wear.
When she was called on stage, Penelope recalled, “I felt happy, because I love singing and I love Antigone Rising.” Getting the guitar was an even bigger shock. “I can’t believe they gave it to me,” she said.
“It was really meaningful, and I feel touched that she was chosen,” her mother said. “It’s been such a difficult year for everyone, and to find a little happiness is rare lately.”
Antigone Rising’s new album, “True Joy,” will be available later this month, but fans can get early access to the tracks at antigonerising.com for $15.