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Zoe Deal

In the legend of the phoenix, the mythical animal rises out of its own ashes stronger than it was before. For individuals involved in the interactive music program Out of the Ashes, this transformation is a reality.

The program for adults of all abilities was created seven years ago by Jon Dalgarn, a professional musician from Spokane. Over the years, he has witnessed what music does to adults with developmental disabilities. His Western Washington based program, aptly named after the transformation of the phoenix, initiates valuable change.

Dalgarn is able to see this first-hand. 

Out of the Ashes performer plays a ukelele // Photo by Zoe Deal

“They have to deal with whatever they have to deal with throughout the course of the day. Music, and the fact they’re a part of it, changes them,” Dalgarn said.

It all began when Dalgarn, a professional musician, observed how music impacted adults with different disabilities at the nonprofit organization he managed.

“The feeling of the whole place would really just change,” Dalgarn said. “A lot of people were really responding to the music program — really wanting to do whatever they could do to be a part of it.”

At that point, Dalgarn began searching for venues for the music group around Western Washington. Clients choose the music and perform before an audience, accompanied by Dalgarn and some of his pre-recordings.

With the support of parents and local businesses, the program took off.

“A light switch of a difference. Light switch on, light switch off. And that’s what I was seeing,” Dalgarn said. “The big kicker was either mom or dad was also seeing what was going on. So, I ended up kind of thinking, ‘You know this is something.’”

Eventually, the program grew so successful that he had to quit his other job in order to focus on the program. After leaving his position at the nonprofit organization in Arlington, he devoted his time to Out of the Ashes.

For his clients the experience of playing for an audience was outstanding, but the public hadn’t fully grabbed onto the concept.

“I was noticing the public at large. Not everybody has experience with somebody that has a developmental disability, so there’s a level of uncomfortableness there,” Dalgarn said.

Members of Out of the Ashes perform on Tuesday, Oct. 3 // Photo by Zoe Deal

As the group continued performing at local bookstores and coffee shops, Dalgarn gained more perspective watching the audience from where he stood on stage.

“To see what joy is and all those things - really important things in your life - these guys are just full of that kind of joy and when we’re playing, that is sent out,” Dalgarn said. “That’s what people see, and most people respond to that. Suddenly, they’re now allowing that person in.”

During the program’s weekly Tuesday performance, smiles remained on the faces of the performers and audience alike. The sweet sound of cowbell, maracas and voices spread throughout the room. Audience members listened contently as they watched family, friends and strangers move to their own music. The space remained open for people to dance, pick up new instruments and interact with others.

Kari McArdle, recreation manager at the Max Higbee Center, said some of the biggest changes she’s seen in clients pertain to confidence. A group from the center joins Out of the Ashes for some programs at Boundary Bay and the Bellingham Veterans of Foreign Wars. 

“There’s a lot of members that we have that aren’t very outgoing or don’t talk much or interact much and they start singing and you wouldn’t even know because they’re nonverbal. And that’s really incredible,” McArdle said.

McArdle finds importance in the community interaction with the group’s performances.

“People will just wander in and are like, ‘This is really rad.’ Community involvement is really cool because we don’t get that a lot with this population,” McArdle said.

Though both the public and Dalgarn’s clients were growing from the experience, Dalgarn struggled to fund the group’s endeavors. The program will always include an individual like Dalgarn to teach and support clients. As a result, no agency wanted to take it on.

“When there’s things like happiness and joy and fun and all those really nice feelings, but they’re very intangible, they don’t necessarily qualify you or explain this is why we should pay you,” Dalgarn said. “This is a difficult kind of thing to get across to agencies or people who don’t have an emotional connection to a client.”

Dalgarn turned to the parents and families of his clients for support.

He said life is sometimes very limited in terms of experiences for adults with disabilities. “All of the sudden they’re in a band, and they have a CD,” Dalgarn said. “These are all things that the family members had no idea was ever going to be a possibility.”

Patty Roe, a caretaker to Out of the Ashes member Kevin Shelley, said the best part for Shelley is just being in a band.

“He’s very proud of it. Those kind of places to feel included are just really huge for him,” Roe said.

The parents who became witnesses of the changes occurring in their loved one’s life, eventually ended up funding the program.

“They’re in a band; it’s just completely changed their whole life. There is meaning. To me that’s transformative. There is worth where there wasn’t worth before,” Dalgarn said.

Pam Holladay’s daughter, Janae, lights up the stage at programs with vocals and a huge smile. Holladay said Janae’s participation in Out of the Ashes has made her feel more comfortable in public.

“She has more confidence,” Holladay said. “She invites a lot of her regular friends to come.”

Similarly, Roe notices the impact the program has had on people at different stages developmentally. Roe said it’s amazing to see people come alive in the program.

Moving forward, Dalgarn sees the program branching off. His son, an air-force veteran, has expressed interest in offering a similar program to musically inclined veterans coping with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I can see this whole thing with a lot of different arms,” said Dalgarn. “I just think there are a lot of people that don’t know the program is happening that need to know, and I would love to be able to also mentor people like myself.”

Out of the Ashes performs weekly at the Bellingham VFW and occasionally at Boundary Bay Brewery.

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