Teens Curate Music Playlists to Bring Joy to the Elderly

Daily Point of Light # 6081 Sep 5, 2017
Project Playback co-founder Jason Albaum assists a resident at Kennebunk Center for Health and Rehabilitation./Courtesy Juli Ennis

High school students Juli Ennis, Colby Ellis and Jason Albaum are the founders of Project Playback, an group that provides music therapy to seniors. Juli, Colby and Jason initially got the idea to start Project Playback as eight graders at The Middle School of the Kennebunks. When given an assignment to develop a project that benefitted the community, the kids–who were all school band members–naturally joined together out of a shared love of music. They decided to curate song lists for local seniors residing at Kennebunk Center for Health and Rehabilitation as their project. The music helps patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia, in particular, by triggering memories and emotions from the past. In a way, according the Project Playback, “the music can act as a passageway back to the patient’s youth.” 

Project Playback is today’s Daily Point of Light, and Points of Light spoke to co-founder Juli Ennis to find out more about their work in the Kennebunk community.

What inspires you to volunteer?

I’m inspired to volunteer in my local community because I know it’s important to give back. By volunteering, I am creating a more positive environment and bettering the community overall. It inspires me to keep volunteering when I see how much joy the music brings to the residents at the local nursing home. When they are singing, dancing and having fun, I know that I am making a difference. When I see the positive effects of our work it inspires me to keep volunteering and to continue with the project.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your volunteer work?

The most rewarding part of volunteering is seeing the positive effects that our project has on the residents. When we walk into the nursing home the residents are happy to see us, and they are excited to listen to the music. When we see them dancing or singing along to the music it brings us so much joy. It is very rewarding seeing a resident react this way because it shows that we are making a positive difference in their lives. It is also very rewarding when a resident who has Alzheimer’s or can’t remember things well recalls a certain song or artist. This means that we are not only brightening their days, but also helping the residents remember information from their past.

Juli Ennis, Jason Albaum and Colby Ellis (left to right)./Courtesy Juli Ennis

What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?

Colby and I were working with the residents one day, sitting in the dining room. The two of us were sitting, one on each side, of Phyllis, whom we’ve worked with for about three years. One of the activities directors had recommended that we played “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” for Phyllis, as she had been a lifelong Red Sox fan. As the music began to play through her headphones, we watched Phyllis light up. Colby and I began to sing along to the music, encouraging her to join us. And so, once withdrawn, non-communicative, and introverted, Phyllis had now begun to sing along with us. We sat in that little circle and sang through the whole song two or three times. Phyllis was happier, more verbal, and more relaxed than we’d ever seen her. She told us about her youth and how she would play baseball in the backyard with her brothers. She told us that she used to attend Red Sox games with her family. And for that short afternoon, Colby and I got a glimpse into Phyllis’s life before Alzheimer’s had taken her captive.

Through that experience and countless others, I have learned that music can help us overcome Alzheimer’s, even if we can only do so for brief moments. Because that afternoon with Phyllis, it was as if she didn’t have Alzheimer’s at all.

It’s important that young adults give back so that they can experience the benefits of community service. Volunteering brings me so much joy, and I want other young adults to experience this joy. Through volunteering, young adults may also form connections with other people. With Project Playback, Jason, Colby and I are able to form intergenerational connections with the residents at the nursing home. Young adult volunteers can encourage kids to follow in their footsteps. Currently Project Playback is working on getting more kids to volunteer.

Colby Ellis helps set up an iPod for a nursing home resident./Courtesy Juli Ennis


What do you want others to learn from your volunteer story?

One very important lesson that we want others to learn from our project is the value of service in one’s community. Many individuals in our generation have the reputation of being self-absorbed and preoccupied with our own needs. We hope that this project can inspire other people, both young and old, the intense feeling of joy and satisfaction that service can provide not only to those receiving the service, but to those giving the service as well. We like to think of this concept as a “two-way street,” in which both givers and receivers of service get to experience the same joy. To give an example, when I put headphones on a resident at the nursing home and see their face light up at the sound of their favorite music, I can immediately tell that I have brightened the day for that particular resident, and that brings me great happiness. Now this sort of experience is not limited to our project. Whether you are bringing food and supplies to victims of a natural disaster, or serving a meal to people in a homeless shelter, you can experience this same “two-way street” of joy. Whether it’s a larger-scale project like ours, or simply a simpler act of kindness or service, it can still make a great difference in someone else’s life.

Are there any future partnerships or events planned for Project Playback that you are excited about?

Project Playback has recently formed a partnership with the United Way of York County. With their support, we are looking to expand our program out to more retirement homes in the Southern Maine area. We have the equipment (headphones, music players, chargers, music, etc.) to expand to three more facilities, and are seeking motivated youth to volunteer in these facilities. Our goal is to pass down Project Playback to these volunteers once we graduate high school so that our program can continue to thrive even when we are no longer able to actively participate in it. Much of our focus will be directed toward recruiting teenage volunteers and implementing programs in local communities during our last two years of high school.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Juli, Colby and Jason? Visit All For Good to learn more about local volunteer opportunities.

Jia Gayles