“For me, personally,” David Simmons said, reflecting on his journey as a musician and an educator, “the arts helped save my life. Quite literally.”
Simmons is the Founder and Executive Director of the UBU Project, a performing arts education outreach organization that specializes in arts residencies in K-12 schools, youth centers, group homes and juvenile detention facilities. UBU works with children and teenagers to develop critical life skills through music and songwriting, movement or theatre, using trauma-informed practices and social-emotional learning.
Last month, Simmons spent a week at the Flathead Youth Home, a group home in Kalispell that offers short-term crisis intervention and longer-term group care for eight adolescents ages 10 to 18. Simmons and the Flathead Youth Home residents spent a week writing, performing and recording a song together that drew on the lived experiences of the kids, many of whom had found their way to the home through unstable home situations and the juvenile justice system.
Flathead Youth Home is operated by the nonprofit organization Youth Homes, which cares for children facing abuse, neglect, emotional trauma and substance abuse issues. Based in Missoula, Youth Homes works with kids throughout western Montana through its network of emergency shelters, therapeutic group homes, foster care and adoption programs and counseling services.
“The theme of all of our kids is trauma,” Flathead Youth Home Program Director Lori Madden said. “They come from families that maybe aren’t able to care for them in the way that people would hope, and things come out sideways. So then they get involved in delinquency, criminal behavior, behavioral issues in the school, behavioral issues in foster homes, things like that, due to the trauma that they’ve experienced.”
Flathead Youth Home is “a place to keep them safe and build a relationship with them, and hopefully begin that process of healing from whatever it is that they’ve experienced,” Madden said.
Simmons brought UBU to the youth home through a grant from Amazing Place Music, a Whitefish-based nonprofit that brings musical programs and performers to the Flathead Valley. Mike Eldred, the founder and executive director of Amazing Place, watched Simmons conduct a workshop with students in Arizona, and knew he wanted to bring the program up to northwest Montana. Jenanne Solberg, a former music educator and a member of the Amazing Place Board of Directors, suggested bringing the program to Flathead Youth Home after attending a fundraiser for the home last year.
“It’s the Flathead Youth Home, and Amazing Place Music who’s funding it, and then David, who’s got the skills and the talent and the heart. I just think it’s a really amazing collaboration that has come together beautifully,” Flathead Youth Home Development Coordinator Hannah Plumb said.
Madden and Plumb said that they were able to watch the youth home residents develop both their musical skills and their willingness to speak about their own experiences over the course of the week with UBU. While many of the kids were initially uninterested in working with Simmons, by the end of the week, they were collaborating on the original song, and even sharing music they had written on their own. The two youth home administrators said the kids were able to speak about trauma through music in a way that is often difficult during their everyday lives.
“They don’t trust adults, period,” Madden said. “By bringing music in, I think they’ve been able to share pieces of themselves, and pieces of their story and their life experiences, that they aren’t going to be able to sit down across from you and have a conversation about. But they can write lyrics and sing about it.”
The song encompassed heavy topics, from the inherent brokenness of the criminal justice and child protective systems, to the difficulty of being forced to take psychiatric medication.
“It’s a platform that they’re not going to get in trouble for what they’re saying. It’s just, be real, be authentic, share your hearts, share what the struggle has been as an adolescent with trauma in the systems that you’re in. And they’ve done very well,” Madden said.
Simmons said that a large part of his work is using music to help kids have difficult conversations and process the trauma they’ve endured. In addition to his musical skills, Simmons shares parts of his own story, which helps break down barriers between himself and the students he works with.
Simmons survived an attempt at suicide in his early adulthood, and has struggled with mental health issues throughout his life.
“In addition to all this cool stuff and working with rockstars, you know, I’m a thriving survivor of my own suicide attempt. I’m a sober alcoholic. I got bullied. I was a bully,” he said, describing telling his own story to students during UBU residencies. “I don’t know what you’re going through or have gone through. But I have an understanding because of what I’ve gone through.”
Though Simmons estimates he has worked with more than 7,000 kids over five years through his music intervention programs, his visit to the Flathead Youth Home took on a more poignant meaning for the music educator. Having grown up in Missoula and made trips to the Flathead Valley throughout his adolescence, coming to work with the youth home felt in many ways like returning to his roots.
“As [my fiancé] Tamara and I were driving up the Mission, and you reach that hill in Ravalli and the Mission Mountains just sort of descend upon you, I just had this huge feeling of homecoming,” Simmons said. “It was such a joy, in addition to working with those kids at Flathead Youth Home and those amazing people, to just be home again.”
Simmons sees the inherent power of music as critical in his work with UBU. Even for kids who’ve never made music before, UBU helps them access a part of themselves that can often be difficult to talk about through therapy sessions and one-on-one conversations.
“There’s the old 60’s song lyric, which is incredibly true: ‘Music is the universal language, and love is the key,’” he said. “Creating music, in addition to listening to it, takes anyone involved to a whole different level of who they are, who they think they could be.”
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