Project Playback is ‘The Future of Good’
KENNEBUNK — Out of the thousands of service projects preformed over the years by eighth-graders at the Middle School of the Kennebunks, only one has earned its creators the privilege of ringing the closing bell on the New York Stock Exchange.
That will happen Dec. 22, on the NYSE floor in New York City, when Jason Albaum, Colby Ellis, and Juli Ennis, now sophomores at Kennebunk High School, will close out the trading day awash in applause from traders at hand and business leaders watching from all over world.
For the past three years, Albaum, Ellis, and Ennis have paid twice-weekly visits to seniors suffering from cognitive dysfunction, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, at the Kennebunk Center for Health and Rehabilitation. As part of Project Playback, the trio augments their social visits by creating personal playlists the seniors can listen to on donated MP3 players. The familiar and favorite tunes, compiled following interviews with the patients and their family members, have helped to improve the mental, emotional, and overall well-being of the seniors, officials at the center say.
In recognition of the many hundreds of hours given to Project Playback, and for the good it has done, U.S. Cellular donated $10,000 in recorded music and equipment — including additional iPods and 200 CDs — to help expend the project to other area nursing homes. In will also give a $1,500 contribution in the students’ names to A Place to Start, a Kennebunk-based resource for the families of people suffering with Alzheimer’s.
“Jason, Colby and Juli’s shared passion for music brings so much joy to the patients they spend time with every week,” said Matt Kasper, U.S. Cellular director of sales in New England. “They are such an incredible example for their peers, and U.S. Cellular is very proud to contribute to Project Playback to help them grow.”
Albraum, Ellis, and Ennis are longtime friends and partners in a jazz trio. As such, they were familiar with a lot of the songs most loved by members of the “greatest generation.”
“When I listen to music, I don’t go to a pop [radio] station, I put on something from the ‘20s or ‘30s,” Ennis said.
For that reason, when the group was researching things they could do to complete the Baccalaureate International program at MSK, a video on the benefits of music therapy, along with their own interest in the tunes nursing homes patients are likely to recall from their youth, was sufficient to spark an idea for a compelling service project.
But what amazes most, including the trio’s parents, teachers, and even staffers at the senior center, is that they’ve stuck with the weekly visits long after earning their project grade and graduating middle school.
“We kept it up because we enjoy doing it,” Ennis said. “There are benefits for the patients but there’s also a lot of benefits for us because there’s so much satisfaction. When you see a smile on a patient’s face, that brings you so much joy. Why would you not want to continue doing something that brings so much joy to so many people.”
“It is hard to fit in it sometimes, with school and sports and band, but we just want to make a difference in the community, I guess,” Albaum said.
“We enjoy making the time in our busy schedules because there is such a divide between the younger and older generations,” Ellis said. “Apart from the benefits of the therapy itself, it really great for them, I think, to know that we care about them, just as people, and not even because we’re related or anything.”
In addition to U.S. Cellular, for its contributions to Project Playback, the group founders also point to Colby’s mother, MSK music teacher Laurie Ellis.
“She’s been our project mentor, who really fostered our love of music in middle school and helped us turn that into something where we can make a positive impact on the community,” Albaum said.
The trio offers particular thanks to Lori Stackpole and Shirley Norcross, activity directors at the center.
“They were totally into our idea and have constantly supported us from the start,” Albaum said. “They never once made us feel like we were just kids. They always trusted us and took us seriously.”
“That was easy,” Stackpole said. “Because we are close to the school, we get service project inquiries pretty regularly, but what generally happens is young people will come in and say, ‘We want to volunteer, what can we do?’ What we didn’t anticipate in this case is that they would come in, after calling to see if they could visit us, with a such a well thought-out presentation. They had a complete plan of precisely what it was they wanted to do. They just wanted to know if we were willing. Well, of course we were willing. It sounded like the most wonderful thing.”
“They really brought an amazing level of enthusiasm, but also respect for the dignity of our residents,” Norcross said. “Their visits have become very meaningful for so many.”
One example cited by Stackpole and Norcoss is the case of Phyllis, a woman who had become almost completely nonverbal. However, from Phyllis’ family, the youngsters learned she had once been a huge Red Sox fan. After a couple of rounds of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” Phyllis began to creep out of her shell.
“Eventually, she got this big smile on her face and started singing along with us, kind of waving her arms and conducting,” Albaum recalls. “That was very special because, before our visits, she was really very quiet, but the music really brought out this very joyful side we had not seen before.”
“Now, she still won’t say a lot, but she is able to express herself,” Stackpole said. “Just seeing her making those small gains I think is attributable to them. They’re special kids.”
“But the music is only one part of it,” Laurie Ellis says. “Research shows music stimulates the brain, but what I think is really special about this project is that they come and really interact with the patients, whether it’s to sing along, or actually dance with them, or to take the headphones off and simply have a conversation.
“There are people who will say kids today are always on their phones, and that’s a bad thing, but here they are using technology to make connections in a positive way across generations,” she added.
Laurie Ellis said she sort of expected the project to peter out once its founders started high school, but, if anything, they’ve become even more dedicated.
“During the summer, they’ll actually feel guilty if one of them is busy at, say, band camp or something, and can’t make a visit,” she said. “They know the residents have come to expect them and look forward to their time together.”
But with each success, there have come setbacks. One aspect unanticipated before it was realized the staying power Project Playback would have, was that it might outlive some of its participants.
All three students recall the day they entered a resident’s room only to find that person’s not there — with the bed made and all her possessions packed away.
“She had passed,” Stackpole recalls. “I wish I had been able to catch them and warn them first.”
“But that almost inspired them to do this more,” Laurie Ellis said, “because they knew they had made a difference in that person’s life up until the very last moments.”
“It’s just overwhelming,” said Ennis’ mom, Karen Ennis. “The thing that just blows my mind is how it comes from their hearts. No one has set any expectations of them, they’re just doing it out of their own genuine sense of compassion and interest in the project.
“It’s the ultimate reward as a parent, seeing your children have this genuine interest in helping out others in their community,” she continued. “It’s mind-boggling. It makes me feel like I must have done something right. And I think this has made them realize the impact they can have on other people.”
Of course, it was the thought of personal connections that inspired and sustained Project Playback, not the expectation of a reward, or national recognition. In fact, Laurie Ellis says, even after knowing the kids had been nominated, and after they’d done a Skype interview with U.S. Cellular contest judges, neither they nor their parents knew what to expect.
“We got a call to say they’d won and it was like, ‘Won what?’” she said. “None of us really knew what this was all about.”
The important thing about the “Future of Good” award, Albaum, Ellis and Ennis, say, is that it will not only allow Project Playback to expand to as many as four additional nursing homes, it should ensure survival of the program far into the future.
Already, the trio is working with current MSK eighth-graders interested in expanding and continuing the visits as part of their own Baccalaureate International service projects.
“We don’t want this project to end. Once we’ve graduated high school and gone on to college, we want it to go on with younger students,” Ennis said.
“It’s always been our goal to pass this on to other people,” Ellis said.
Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at email@example.com.