The iPod is nothing short of a miracle. That might sound a tad bit out of touch in 2015, when the iPhone has all but rendered it obsolete and the click wheel has found its resting place in the history books. (Let's face it, it's now a rarity to get krunk with an iPod -- or to rely on one while you're sweating it out on the treadmill the next day.) But for JP Maloney and Ashley Brightwell, the devices are still essential. With their charity, Music is Our Weapon (MIOW), the pair take up iPods as a weapon in the never-ending fight against Alzheimer's disease.
Alzheimer's and dementia, the degenerative diseases that slowly strip the mind of its memory and cognitive abilities, affect roughly five million Americans per year. For those affected by the neurological conditions, as well as their family members, memory recovery is not only a sentimental goal, but key to the improvement of day-to-day functioning. A number of studies published by the American Psychological Association support claims that Alzheimer's patients greatly benefit from music therapy, and in April of last year, the philanthropic audiophiles united their passions for music and for helping others by creating MIOW, a non-profit that aims to combat the disease, one iPod at a time.
It began when Maloney, a laid-back, 20-something web designer, got the urge to create a music blog. It was his architect friend, Brightwell, who suggested they use the blog to raise money for charity. Their inspiration was an emotive viral video produced by Music and Memory, in which a nearly catatonic man with Alzheimer's becomes unexpectedly invigorated, singing and dancing after being handed an iPod playing one of his favorite songs. As explained in the video by renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks, music can serve as an effective catalyst for memory recovery for those with the disease.
Noting that the elderly are often overlooked by charities, Brightwell and Maloney contacted Music and Memory, based in the northeast, to offer their help. As Maloney puts it, they had hoped "to be their soldiers in the South." But for financial and creative reasons, Brightwell and Maloney ultimately decided to create their own regional version of the organization, naming it Music is Our Weapon and quickly building it into both a blog and a non-profit organization. Today their primary endeavor is procuring iPods, which are gifted to nursing homes or hospitals, and recently even comforted victims of human trafficking being kept at a safe house in Alabama.
The MIOW blog, which highlights little-known artists, serves "to get people in the loop," Brightwell says. It's a platform to promote their events, and to share their SoundCloud playlists with people worldwide. The group sets up booths at various events and festivals in Dallas, like Decks in the Park, with whom they have a strong partnership. MIOW works on a completely volunteer basis, collecting donations of new or used iPods, and raising funds by selling T-shirts that read, "Drop beats, not bombs." One-hundred percent of the profits go to the purchase of iPods and the songs downloaded onto them before drop-off; it's the kind of merch you can feel good about buying.
Maloney explained what differentiates theirs from charities like Music and Memory, which is research-based and clinical. While MIOW draws from the same scientifically endorsed methods, he considers their entity "emotion-based." "It's for people to reconnect part of their souls they may have lost along the way," he says. It's why MIOW accepts referrals to other groups that might benefit from music therapy, instead of focusing exclusively on Alzheimer's. "Our brand has levity and edge," Maloney adds. "We won't be putting on a black tie, red carpet gala for D Magazine's photographers. We'd rather put on a concert."
And they do a great job of that. Their last North Texas Giving showcase had 37 acts and raised $5,000. They've established a strong presence in the local music scene, curating or sponsoring events monthly, and their shows have even spread to Houston (where Brightwell lives) and Austin, where MIOW is curating a SXSW showcase comprising the local and international artists on one of their playlists. They're also a media sponsor and beneficiary of Future, the popular underground party held in Dallas' That That gallery. Future parties are dark, smoke-filled mind-trips and the list of attendees always reads like a who's-who of scenester-ville.
Rose Moore is a volunteer with MIOW. One afternoon she visits a memory-care facility in Garland called Winter's Park, where she and Maloney are on a first-name basis with every employee. Moore began volunteering after watching both of her parents battle Alzheimer's. She helps Maloney in his partnerships with care units like Winter's Park, which is one of the organization's recipients.
The pair arrive at the designated common area to find care-unit director Marvin Crosby soulfully singing a Patsy Cline tune into a microphone to entertain the residents. MIOW had already assigned iPods to the patients. After consulting staff and family members on each patient's musical preferences, their devices were loaded with 25 songs ranging from "Ave Maria" to "Jailhouse Rock."
A group of elderly residents is brought in, greeted warmly and set up with the devices bearing their names. A woman named Ethel, who's as jovial and spirited as she is old, is presented with an iPod filled with gospel tunes. She dances sweetly with Moore, rocking back and forth with an impressive grasp on the rhythm.
Occasionally Ethel bursts into uncontrollable laughter and bangs on the table, saying excitedly, "This is all right!" She turns to a nurse and tells her, "It hits the soul." A lady named Bobby had come in silently and now sits next to Ethel, humming along to the music softly and then beginning to sing without missing a word. An elegant patient named Jean appears lost in thought, and apologizes for daydreaming.
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It's a sight that makes several onlookers, including staff member Diana Martinez, a bit misty-eyed. The room is filled with crafts, balls and costumes meant to amuse the seniors -- a harsh reminder that we all revert to a state of infancy sooner or later. But it's moving to watch the joyful music transform the residents, and impossible not to wonder what memory made Ethel laugh as she did.
Various artists have donated songs to MIOW, and as the organization enters its second year, Brightwell says it plans to sell compilations of those songs. The goal is to "promote music and wellness, and it's a way of combining both," he says. Maloney also mentions a partnership with music schools, which he hopes will involve performances by young students at the nursing homes -- an arrangement that would make a positive impact on kids, too. However, he's wary of taking MIOW in too many directions. "I don't want to dilute it into too many things," Maloney says. "But at the end of the day, we're just spreading music."
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