|Courtesy photo/Megan Catherwood
Krystal (left) and Ryan Sheehan dance during an assembly at Middleburg Academy. Sheehan is one of 14 Middleburg students that volunteers at A Place to Be, helping adults with developmental disabilities through music and arts.|
The sign at the top of the Middleburg Academy stage on Feb. 12 read “Happy Valentine's Day.” On the stage, a group of nearly 30 people, dressed in bright red and pink shirts and sweaters, huddled in front of three microphones.
“For this next one, we want you guys to sing with us,” Tom Sweitzer implored to the crowd of high schoolers at Middleburg, a college preparatory school in southwest Loudoun.
The audio began and the crowd on stage began to sing the words to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's timeless classic, “Ain't No Mountain High Enough.”
The group singing wasn't just a group of students, but rather 14 students and their “lunch buddies,” a group of developmentally disabled adults from A Place to Be.
Music as therapy
Sweitzer has been involved in music for much of his life. In 1994, Sweitzer graduated from Shenandoah University in Winchester with a bachelor's degree in music theatre. From there, Sweitzer moved his work to Middleburg, where he headed the theater department and taught music at the Hill School, a private school for students in kindergarten to eighth grade.
After 15 years with the Hill School, Sweitzer began his pursuit for a master's degree in musical therapy, a goal he recently accomplished. In 2011, Sweitzer founded A Place to Be, a nonprofit that offers music therapy and life coaching to help people navigate life's challenges.
APTB maintains a close relationship with NW Works in Winchester, a group for developmentally delayed adults that provides job training, support services and job opportunities.
Middleburg Academy linked up with APTB in 2011. Dean of Students Cathy Struder spoke with Sweitzer after a meeting and he told her of his program. Knowing the school had success orchestrating a lunch buddies program with a local elementary school, Struder and Sweitzer coordinated a time to join the clients from NW Works at APTB.
“I though, 'let's try it.' I wasn't quite sure what it was going to be like, bringing high schoolers in,” Struder said. “From the day they stepped back into the bus, we were sold.”
The demand to participate in the “Lunch Bunch” program was so high, restrictions had to be made as to who could join. In order to prepare, students had to be in their junior or senior year and in good academic standing. This year, there are 14 students participating in the program. On every Tuesday, the students travel to A Place to Be for lunch, music and activities.
Senior Laura Renzi originally thought the activity would simply be a way to earn the requisite community service hours to graduate. After two years with the program, she's found her time there to be much more.
“We thought we went there to help them, but they ended up helping us more than we could ever help them. I can be in the worst mood on a Tuesday, but when I go there, I don't even remember what happened that morning," Renzi said.
Struder and Sweitzer said the effect the APTB participants has had on the Middleburg students is nearly palpable.
“A friendship and relationship is made that is based on just being yourself. So many high schoolers feel they have to be somebody else,” Sweitzer. “But the moment they walk into A Place to Be, all of their defenses are down.”
A Valentine's Day show
For Valentine's Day, the students from APTB and their lunch buddies gathered on stage to put on a performance, featuring songs, dancing and poetry, for the students and faculty of Middleburg Academy. While the Middleburg students were excited to participate with their buddies, some were admittedly nervous about singing and dancing in front of their peers.
“At first I was nervous because I didn't know how my classmates were going to react,” junior Ryan Sheehan said. “But I was really pleased with how they reacted.”
At the conclusion of the performance, as the stars took repeated bows, the auditorium thundered with applause. Sara, a piano player from NW Works, blew kisses to the crowd. A varsity basketball player in the audience stood up and blew her a kiss back.
Sweitzer announced to the crowd that they would be performing again, but for another school nearby.
“Nah,” Sara interrupted. “Let's come back here.”
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