Tidewater Arts Outreach: Bringing Hope and Healing Through the Arts

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By BELINDA ELLIOTT

Each month across Hampton Roads talented musicians and other artists give top-notch performances for crowds of all ages. You won’t find these events listed with Ticketmaster, and most don’t take place in typical concert venues. They are all sponsored by Tidewater Arts Outreach (TAO), a local nonprofit organization that uses music and other arts to reach the disenfranchised, the homeless, the elderly, and the disabled in our community.

Holiday songs are great motivation for reading the lyrics.

Holiday songs are great motivation for reading the lyrics.

Founded in 2003, TAO brings music and the arts to nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, homeless and domestic abuse shelters, hospitals, and dependent care programs throughout Hampton Roads. Whether through music, art, poetry, storytelling, or dance, the talented artists that perform for TAO are on a mission to enrich lives, build community, and offer hope and healing to people who no longer have easy access to the arts.

The use of arts in healthcare has become a growing field with recent research showing that music can reduce pain in critically ill patients and enhance cognitive skills in patients with dementia, and art can provide a way for Alzheimer’s patients to continue to relate to the world around them. For people who are isolated from society and spend much of their time alone, the arts provide stimulation, creative outlets for expressing themselves, and an enhanced sense of connection with the community as well as with staff and caregivers.  As TAO’s website explains, the arts cannot cure, but they can help heal.

The organization’s executive director, MaryAnn Toboz, is a musician who has always enjoyed performing at local schools and nursing homes. While living in Utah, she became involved in a similar organization and adopted their model to start TAO when she returned to Hampton Roads. “I knew I always wanted music and the arts to be in my life,” she explained. “Running this organization is a way to utilize my talents to make a difference through the arts.”

TAO artist Angela Stroup facilitates a visual arts session

TAO artist Angela Stroup facilitates a visual arts session

Last year, TAO artists presented approximately 250 programs that were seen by more than 7,500 people. They currently serve 70 facilities across Hampton Roads, and there is a waiting list of facilities that wish to be added. The artists enjoy new venues in which to share their craft, and they are compensated for their time. However, most of them do it just for the pleasure they receive by bringing joy to others.

Each program gives audience members the opportunity to participate and engage with the performers. It isn’t unusual to see otherwise unresponsive nursing home residents suddenly come alive as the music plays and they clap, dance, and sing along.

“There are tears and hugs,” Toboz said. “It happens all the time. What’s really striking is the loneliness. People have so much time on their hands. They are very appreciative of our programs. The arts builds bridges.”

TAO artists also paint with patients who have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Research has shown that the parietal lobe of the brain—an area involved in creativity and stimulated by creative activities like art and music—is one of the last areas to be affected by the debilitating disease, Toboz explained.

Participants at Camp Horizon, an Up Center program, enjoying a TAO drum circle during summer camp

Participants at Camp Horizon, an Up Center program, enjoying a TAO drum circle during summer camp

The organization recently partnered with Sentara Life Care to present a workshop, “Opening Minds Through Art,” to educate caregivers and staff members of local facilities about how to use visual arts to improve the quality of life for their patients. It is just one of many workshops that TAO presents each year for the community.

Greg Yanta, administrator for Chesapeake Health and Rehabilitation Center, says the residents of his facility have greatly enjoyed programs presented by TAO artists. “They bring in a large variety of entertainment for us,” he said. “The patients love it.”

For many who live at the facility, the arts were once a part of their lives. “It is important to allow opportunities for them to stay in touch with things that were important to them when they lived independently,” Yanta said. “Their group brings in very high-quality talent, and we feel fortunate to be a part of the rounds this organization makes.”

TAO hopes to expand its offerings soon, Toboz said. They are currently developing a drop-in day program for people suffering with dementia and other diseases. “We want to develop a regular series where people can bring their loved ones for a couple hours of art in the afternoon,” she said.

Their biggest challenge is maintaining the funding and resources needed to support the organization. Each year they host two fundraising events, the Sea Level Singer/Songwriter Festival, a weekend of concerts and events that recognize regional musicians and songwriters, and the Emerging Artists Showcase in which contestants submit two original songs and compete for a spot among the top ten who get to perform in a public concert. The organization is supported by these events, grants, and community donations.

“We are able to do this work because of the community support, and it is amazing what the community has accomplished,” Toboz said. “The organization gives me the opportunity to connect with so many creative and compassionate people in our community. It is very rewarding.”

To learn more about the organization and how you can get involved, visit their website: www.twartsoutreach.org.

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