Napa Valley Market Place

By Lisa Adams Walter

May 2020

Over the past year, The Meadows of Napa Valley had been coordinating with Music for Memory project, a program sparked by Napa Noon Rotary with the participation of Teens Connect.

“Napa Rotary approached us for help with their Music For Memory project and we jumped at the chance,” said Jeni Olsen, Founder and Executive Director of Teens Connect, “our teens actively engage in community volunteer opportunities whenever possible, and we loved the cross-generational idea of this initiative.”

According to Melissa Novotny, Memory Support Supervisor at The Meadows of Napa Valley (a Life Plan Residential Community), the goal of Music For Memory is to bring music to the cognitively challenged population in the Memory Center.

“Studies show that music is stored in a part of the brain that remains intact, therefore escaping the ravages of Alzheimer’s and other related dementias as the diseases progress,” Novotny explained, “When residents hear music from their past, it literally lights up this part of their brain transporting them to a place of wonderful memories, joy, and peace.”

The program came to life when Napa Noon Rotary generously offered a grant to fund the project, which allowed The Meadows to purchase Amazon tablets, headphones, mini speakers and accessories for the individual use of their residents.

“these portable devices allow our residents accessibility to their favorite songs while in their rooms, on the patio or virtually anywhere in the Memory Center. Listening to their own music offers them comfort and respite during times of sadness, agitation, loneliness, boredom or pain,” Novotny added.

Teens Connect was inspired by the tragic loss of two Napa teenagers to suicide in 2016, Olsen founded the organization to meet the unique mental health need of local youth to make an enduring impact on their wellbeing by creating programming both inside and outside of local Napa Valley schools.

Since founding the organization Olsen has connected teens at local schools by helping them establish empowerment clubs on their school campuses and created a county-wide Teen Council which includes students from seven area high schools. The Teens Connect Teen Council provides peer-to-peer support and referral, promotes volunteerism and civic engagement and offers insight, observation, and the unique teen perspective to program development.

Members of Teens Connect have spoken to the School Board about critical issues such as teen mental health, volunteered at numerous local events and traveled internationally with Olsen in service to disadvantaged people in destinations such as the Dominican Republic and Guatemala.

In this new program at The Meadows, Teens Connect student volunteers create personal playlists for residents as part of the Music For Memory project. The students come from various schools in the Napa community. “They come weekly on their own time to the Memory Center and work with our residents, building playlists of their favorite songs, artists, and genres,” said Novotny.

Gianna Graffigna, a senior at Napa High School became involved in Teens Connect, as she is serving as co-president of the Enough Club at her school, which she explained has goals similar to Teens Connect. With a desire to volunteer, Graffigna joined Music For Memory at the start. She stated that her role is to figure out what type of music a resident will like, and that they can eventually listen to on their own, “I believe that this will allow them to somehow remember some things of their past, or just have fun listening to music in general.”

Madison Shipp, also a senior at Napa High School became involved with Teens Connect after a friend told her about a life-changing trip to the Dominican Republic, together they traveled to Guatemala the following year. “I very recently became involved in the Music For Memory project,” said Shipp, “I create playlists for the residents. I play songs for them that they may have liked and they either say yes or no.” Shipp usually interacts with one to two residents, volunteering one to two hours per visit.

Samira Flores, a junior at Vintage High School, typically volunteers with her friend Kalaya Jones, a junior at Napa High School and a current member of the Teen Council. “We sit with the residents and try to put on their favorite music using the tablets and Amazon Music,” Flores explained, “We try our best to sing along and make sure the residents are having a great time. For example, one-time Kalaya and I looked up the lyrics and sang with the residents, there was a smile on everyone’s face that day!”

Jones further described that each playlist is labeled with the resident’s name and saved on each tablet so that the residents can listen to any one of their favorite songs whenever they would like. “At the beginning we receive a list of the resident’s favorite songs from one of their family members,” Jones said, “From there we download the songs in hopes to help the residents remember past experiences and just to have a good laugh.”

Clearly, the teens are learning that there are benefits of this program, which are reciprocal. It is not all about doing for the residents, the teens are learning important life lessons and perhaps even a bit a history about prior generations in the process.

Hanna Newman, another Napa High School senior, joined Teens Connect and traveled with the group to Guatemala last year. She has also volunteered for Music For Memory from the beginning. “The biggest thing I have learned from  participating in Music and Memory is being able to interact and listen to the resident’s life stories,” said Newman who added that she has been surprised at how amazing the lives of the residents have been and how excited they are to talk to the teens and listen to their favorite songs.

Blaine Oliver, also a senior at Napa High School reports, “I have learned more about dementia and how it affects people.”

Shipp has learned that sometimes giving is the best gift to yourself, “Enjoy the little things in life. A simple song can brighten someone’s day in seconds and giving someone a smile is the most heartwarming gift I can ever receive.” She went on to say that she feels refreshed and happy after spending time with the residents, “They are very respectful, witty, funny, and I enjoy hearing about their lives.”

“After spending time with the residents, I feel like music is such a great thing that allows us to connect with one another,” Oliver added.

“I have learned how impactful music is on a person,” said Jones, “each of the residents light up when they hear one of their favorite songs. You can just instantly see the joy and excitement in their eyes. It is beautiful!”

Newman said, “After I spend time with the residents, I feel a mix of emotions, I mostly feel happy that I am able to help put together some music for them to listen to, but my favorite thing I get to walk away with is that I get to listen to them talk about their life and how proud they are to have accomplished what they have done.”

“I love being with the residents! They are all so nice and are truly interested in our lives and I am intrigued by their lives,” Graffigna emphasized, “I would be perfectly happy just talking to them because they have so much to share about our world. I love seeing them smile when they hear the music, and some will sing along and dance.”

“It always makes my week to see the smiles on their faces while singing to their favorite songs. Knowing that something as simple as playing music can mean a lot to someone really makes you feel good,” Flores said, “after I leave the residents, Kalaya and I always spend the whole car ride home talking about all the residents and how adorable they really are.”

“what I didn’t expect was that our teens would be visiting their friends at The Meadows on a regular basis once the playlists were complete, to talk and sing with them. Beautiful relationships are forming,” said Olsen, “teens that volunteer gain new perspectives of our community and world, learn empathy and compassion, improve confidence and self-esteem, and develop unique problem-solving skills.”

Novotny has been impressed with the kindness, compassion, patience, and dedication that the members of Teens Connect offer to residents during their visits. She reports that their efforts are making a difference every day. On behalf of the residents, their families and the Memory Support staff, The Meadow is grateful to Napa Noon Rotary and Teens Connect for their generous contribution of resources, time and talent.

“Even more impactful is the response we see from the residents! They truly come alive as they hear their favorite songs, whether singing alone or together with other residents. The transformation that occurs takes my breath away and never fails to bring me to tears,” said Novotny. “In addition to connecting through music, the students are talking and interacting with our residents while creating the playlist and it is so powerful to see what happens when these two generations connect. Everyone involved benefits and is enriched. It is miraculous and inspiring, Witnessing the success and the positive impact of this program has become the highlight of my week!”

Jones says that the residents and staff are extremely polite and very welcoming to the high school teens and she has realized the value of this project for everyone involved, “After I spend some time with the residents, I feel so amazing. It’s an indescribable feeling of happiness and light energy. I always leave knowing that I helped them feel a bit brighter in the process of trying to remember past experiences, as well as connecting with them through the stories they tell me and through the music. But I hope to have made an impact on their lives, because they have definitely made a huge impact on mine. Sometimes now, I even catch myself listening to their favorite songs!”