During the holidays, I think it’s a bit easier to open your heart to become a little more generous, a little more caring, and a little kinder. Perhaps it’s the festive music, decorations, and overall spirit that the Christmas season brings with it. It’s easy for us all to get caught up in the daily stresses of life. We are human, after all! However, something in my life changed a few years ago, and this something motivates me, challenges me, and makes me want to try a little harder each day in spreading that joyous holiday spirit throughout the year—not just during the holiday season. This “something” demonstrates compassion, generosity, and love towards others every day of the calendar year. That “something” is a group of remarkable individuals I serve at the Woodlands.
Nestled just north of Pittsburgh in Bradford Woods, the Woodlands is picturesque, resembling a scene from the front of a holiday card. As I recently left my music ensemble rehearsal on a November Sunday evening, snowflakes were lightly falling, the faint sounds of participants’ laughter were heard in the background, and the light and darkness of the fall sky came together over the Jewel in the Woods, the building where the group meets. If you judge a book by its cover, the Woodlands would look pretty fantastic on the bookshelf. However, if you take the time to look inside, I can assure you that the content of this story is far richer that the exterior beauty could ever be.
The Woodlands is a 52-acre facility that is dedicated to enriching the lives of children and adults with disability and chronic illness. The campus features an indoor heated pool, 48-bed lodge, dining hall, creative arts and computer center, activity center, camping area, sports court, nature trail, amphitheater, and a par-3 adapted golf course. This summer, the organization installed and began utilizing an adapted zip line that allows anyone the opportunity to fly through the woods in the air. Watching a child who utilizes a wheelchair on a daily basis use the zip line to safely fly above the ground is one of the greatest moments I have ever experienced in my life.
The Woodlands offers a multitude of programming—truly something for everyone. I can speak best to the Notes from the Heart music program. As the Music Program Coordinator, I oversee the summer music camps (this past summer, we implemented our first adult music camp, in addition to our signature youth and teen music camp!), visits from musical artists for our weekend retreats throughout the year, and the year-round music ensemble. Currently, the music ensemble is in the midst of preparing for its holiday concerts.
While I (along with the top-notch music program assistant Emily, volunteer Patrick, accompanist Mindy, and constant support from all of the Woodlands staff) work every Sunday to provide these participants with the opportunity to express themselves, enhance musical skills, and provide social opportunities with their peers, the truth is that my contribution is minimal. The pure magic, which some people experience only during the holidays, happens every single day at the Woodlands, thanks to the participants who benefit from our programming.
Each participant in the music ensemble has his or her own realm of strength, personality, and charisma, and when you’re around all of them, their happiness is contagious. Whenever I have a new music therapy student come to observe my work or complete a fieldwork placement, the magic is instant, as one student once said to me, “I can’t stop smiling!” That’s just it, plain and simple. The participants’ light shines so brightly. These young people still hurt. They feel disappointment, as well as satisfaction in their various successes and achievements in life. However, I rarely hear my participants complain. Their attitudes towards life glow amidst everyday stresses, as they clearly define “overcomer.” Their parents also demonstrate remarkable grace and strength while standing behind them with never-ending support.
It’s the simple things that I quietly take note of: participants holding the door open for each other, giving small words of encouragement to one another (“you did it! I told you that you could!”), cheering when a peer sings a solo, and picking up the papers for a friend who dropped a packet of music. You see, the “holiday spirit” I talked about earlier is alive and present every day I am privileged to be in the presence of these fine young people. It’s a reminder for me to open my heart to show others the simple compassion that I see in my dear ensemble, and all Woodlands participants, each and every day.
I encourage you to come and share the pure magic and spirit of the season with the Woodlands Music Ensemble on Friday, December 19th at 8:00pm in the Activity Center on the Woodlands campus. At the Woodlands, our motto is to “imagine the possibilities.” When I am with the music ensemble, the possibilities are not only imagined, but they become a reality. As I watch these young ladies and gentlemen demonstrate genuine compassion and kindness towards one another, one thing becomes clear: it is the best gift I have received this holiday season.