There is a Northwest band that’s been around for 17 years, called Out Of The Ashes. There are about 30 members. They play covers of The Beatles, Elvis, Tom Petty, and other popular artists.
One of the things that sets this band apart is that to be a member, you have to have a developmental disability such as Autism or Down Syndrome.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, 34 year-old Thomas John Meyer is standing on the shiny, hardwood dance floor of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall in Bellingham, Wash, strumming a guitar. He’s getting ready for the weekly Tuesday night show here. Tommy likes to try on different personalities of his favorite rock stars.
“Yesterday I did my Elvis thing, and Tom Jones,” says John, who starts singing Elvis’s Return To Sender and shimmying his hips like the rock legend.
Tommy has Down Syndrome. He is a natural performer and a member of Out Of The Ashes. Today, he’s helping to set up. There’s a piano, drums and a xylophone. Large plastic bins sit on a table, full of maracas, cow bells, ukuleles and tambourines. There are a few microphones at the ready to capture any voice that’s itching to be heard.
Pretty soon, what was a Tuesday on a sleepy afternoon feels like a popular nightclub at 11 o’clock on a Saturday night. Adults of all different ages with Down, Autism, Williamson Syndrome and other developmental delays are rockin' out.
“There’s a deep rooted primal basic thing that we all have that’s musical, whether it’s needing to hear it or express it. It’s in everybody.” says Jon Delgarn.
Jon is the creator of Out Of The Ashes, and says the name captures the spirit of a phoenix rising. He plays guitar and isings lead vocals. Two other professional musicians volunteer to help back up the members of the band.
Back in the late 1990s, John was working in a warehouse, overseeing a group of developmentally disabled adults who did basic tasks.
“Instead of being at home, the idea was let’s get them in a thing, an environment that maybe there’s some things they could do,” says Jon.
Usually, this work involved mundane, boring tasks, like stuffing envelopes.
Jon, a musician at heart, really enjoyed spending time with these people, but he missed playing music. So, one day, he decide to play his guitar at lunch.
The sterile vibe of the room shifted. Fewer people were acting out. More conversations were happening. Then, Jon took it a step further and handed out rhythm instruments. Then he brought in a microphone.
“Anybody who gets a microphone, there’s this power. That’s a great thing to have. There was somebody we had for a year in a half, who was brought to us and we understood her to be nonverbal. She got the microphone and it was, ‘uhhh,’" Jon remembers.
Any sound made intentionally by someone thought to be nonverbal is quite significant.
“And that’s when I thought that there might be performers here, or that this might address something a little deeper,” says Jon.
Today, Out Of The Ashes plays at coffee shops, restaurants and churches. To take part, you pay to play in the band. It costs $15 for two hours. Amy Ryan is 33 years old. She has autism and has been playing in Out Of The Ashes for seven years.
“I like to feel happy and singing with people. I like Jon Dalgarn,” says Amy.
Amy’s mom, Marguerite Ryan, appreciates the patience Delgarn has with her daughter.
“You know, when Amy first started, she wanted to play the guitar and I asked him, can she bring the guitar? And he said, of course. And then the next week she wanted to bring the harmonica. And I said, can she bring the harmonica, and he goes YES. And I was so paranoid because I was just so used to wanting her to, you know, fit in and do the right thing and not push the limits. And he was like, hey, this is for them, this is for her,” Marguerite recalls.
You’d think the people who are getting the most out of this experience are Amy, Tommy and the rest of the band. But Delgarn says the ripple effects go much further. According to Delgarn, when neurotypical men and women cross paths with this band of people with developmentally disabilities at one of its events, a sort of healing happens.
“This experience breaks down a particular thing where maybe you might have been uncomfortable at a crosswalk with somebody, across the street and they’re in a wheelchair, and how do I act? And there’s some anxiety or whatever it might be. You’re out of balance. Even if your uncomfortableness is from a place of empathy, you don’t need to do that. You don’t know it, but they’re making you better,” he says.
Jon says the music puts everyone on a level playing field. He says the music makes it possible for members of Out of the Ashes to be seen as unique individuals, not as people to be pitied or avoided.
Marguerite, Amy’s mom, says because of this creative outlet for her daughter, she’s a more relaxed parent to Amy than she was before Out Of The Ashes became apart of their lives.
“She doesn’t think twice about dancing to the music in a grocery store. So she’s had to learn to be appropriate in public situations. I give her a little more line. Is she wants to dance in the grocery store, that’s okay,” says Marguerite.
Now, Marguerite will even join her daughter in these public, unpredictable expressions of joy, allowing the music to move her feet down the cereal aisle. Because as Delgarn says, music is in everybody. It’s gotta come out. There is no reason to deny it.