KENNEBUNK — How can three high school friends combine their passion for music with modern technology to make a difference in the lives of elderly nursing home residents? We are Colby Ellis, Jason Albaum and Juli Ennis, founders of Project Playback, a community service group that uses music therapy to awaken the minds of elderly dementia patients.

Project Playback began as a required eighth-grade International Baccalaureate Program assignment at the Middle School of the Kennebunks. With the guidance of our faculty adviser, Laurie Ellis, we were challenged to form a team and develop a community service project based on a common interest. Since the three of us share a love for music and had been playing together in a jazz trio, we initially planned to perform a one-time concert for residents at local nursing homes. However, we realized that one concert would not have much of a lasting impact.

During the research phase of our project, we watched a video that demonstrated how listening to familiar music from the past stimulates the brain in people with Alzheimer’s disease. After seeing the positive emotional and physical responses dementia patients exhibited while listening to music, we decided to institute a music therapy program for residents at a local nursing home.

We began Project Playback by conducting a drive to collect used MP3 players from members of our school and community. We used CDs borrowed from family and friends to create individualized MP3 playlists for residents of the Kennebunk Center for Health and Rehabilitation. To generate these personalized playlists, we surveyed patients’ family members to determine each resident’s specific interests and old favorite songs.

While listening to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” one of the more nonverbal residents, who loves baseball, began to sing aloud and engage in conversation. Another senior enjoys German marches, and becomes animated conducting as the music plays in her headphones. One of the residents looks forward to our weekly visits so she can share her dancing talents with us.

The overwhelming joy and response we witness from residents as they listen to their personalized MP3 playlists makes us realize that this service project is more than just a mandatory academic assignment. We are making a musical and emotional connection with nursing home residents and creating a lasting impact on both the residents and ourselves.

As high school sophomores, we have been able to balance our academic and extracurricular activities to continue our weekly visits to the nursing home, and have worked with over 30 residents since the program began.

This project, however, is so much more than just music therapy. Many of the seniors we spend time with don’t get regular visitors. Though the music does contribute to their happiness, interacting with young adults adds to that delight and provides an important intergenerational connection.

The joy that this project creates goes both ways, since we gain just as much from volunteering as the residents do from listening. We always leave the nursing home with smiles on our faces, because we know we have made the residents’ day brighter.

Recently, our small, local community service project was recognized by U.S. Cellular as part of its The Future of Good program, which is helping to give youth groups like ours a platform to grow.

Following a donation from the company, including a new computer, 200 CDs worth of music and music supplies like headphones and new MP3 players, we’re planning to expand into three more nursing homes. This will allow us to involve more youth in our program and help to inspire other people our age to do good in the community.

We are frequently asked how other students our age can make a difference in their community. Many people don’t know where to start, and the thought of adding another commitment to their already busy schedules can be overwhelming.

Our advice is to start small. Making a real difference in the community doesn’t require a large sacrifice of time. Find a cause that you are passionate about, and it will never feel like work.

By sharing your talents and interests with those less fortunate through volunteer service, even small acts of kindness can leave an everlasting impact on you and those you serve. Through Project Playback, we’ve created an organization that has had a lasting impact on the nursing home residents, the whole community and ourselves.


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