Art Heals the Heart: High Schooler Ashley LoPresti Brings Music Therapy to Children in Need

Ashley LoPresti is a senior at Massapequa High School and has recently received her Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest distinction in the Girl Scouting community and only awarded to approximately 5.4% of high school aged Girl Scouts. Ashley received this distinction after completing a year-long project on music therapy. During this project, Ashley reached out to bands such as Crash the Party as they came through New York City to perform and asked them if they would make a side trip to Long Island to work with children on a curriculum Ashley herself developed. Ashley also provided her community with information on music therapy and the healing it provides through a website, Art Heals the Heart, and after all of her music therapy sessions she provided parents with resource booklets for their families. Even at such a young age, Ashley has been able to overcome the normal struggles that girls and boy her age face in their final year of high school– tests, APs, SATs, college applications, extracurriculars, sports teams– and supersede those difficulties to take on the added responsibility of creating these amazing opportunities for children. We asked Ashley to tell us more about music therapy and why music therapy is so important to her. Here’s what she had to say:

Art Heals the Heart

by Ashley LoPresti

Ashley (center) with band Crash the Party

Ashley (center) with band Crash the Party

We’re always told to appreciate the little things in life, like the way a bird sings or how brightly the sun shines into a room, breaking the night. These seemingly small things begin to become big moments in your life should you face serious illness. Growing up surrounded by illness, I’ve learned firsthand how awful it was to feel severely ill and alone. When you become ill, no matter how many people are around, you still feel alone and isolated. Run-of-the-mill things would make you smile, just because it meant you still could smile. Although I was not the ill one lying in a hospital bed, I was connected to the feeling that came with it because I had watch several close family members suffer from cancer. I felt that I needed to help fix that feeling in other people and to help with the healing process, so I started “Art Heals the Heart.” The focus of my project was about using different forms of art as a therapeutic tool to help heal others with emotional or physical illnesses. Music and art therapy is the use of one of the two mediums, music or art, to bring about positive progression in an illness, whether it be a physical illness or emotional defect. Music and art therapy can be used for cancer patients, or for any healthy person going through a stressful time. Essentially, music and art therapy creates an emotional response in the listener, which stimulates parts of the mind and body. Physical trainers will tell you to listen to music during a workout because it helps promote repetitions, as well as making a tedious exercise more exciting. The effects of music and art therapy include reduced stress levels, increased brain stimulation, more motivation and repetitions of a certain act. Many studies have shown that music and art therapy is a true medical breakthrough. For example, a study was conducted of children who were admitted into an emergency facility in the hospital. Half of the children were given music to listen to during their procedures, and the studies show that they showed less distress and reported lower pain scores as opposed to the children that didn’t listen to music (you can read more about it here!). For my project, I visited the pediatric wing of a local hospital, taught others about my project at street fairs and expositions, and educated young Girl Scout troops on my project. I can’t play an instrument, so I have local bands accompany me to come hang out with the kids and give them a little show for the hour, where the kids can just be kids and forget where they are for a little while. I coordinated two bands, Crash The Party and Love In Motion, to accompany me to the hospital to work with forty children in approximately six months. In addition, I also created age-appropriate curriculum and provided resources for parents on where they could look for music therapy in their community. I also distributed forty informational booklets to parents of these children to provide them with greater knowledge on music therapy. When I educated others not in the hospital, I distributed about a hundred fact sheets for more knowledge on music therapy. As a result of my project, I was recognized by the Girl Scouts with a Gold Award. I never thought that I would be in this position, but when you put your heart and entire self into a cause you hold dear, it takes a large part of your life over. I never thought I would return to the feeling of being surrounded by constant illness. Cancer is a prevalent illness in my family, and I have had to handle the strain of watching loved ones fall ill under its grip while I could do nothing about it. I had put up walls around my heart, locking that feeling away from me after having to have it thrust upon me so many times as a child and a young adult. To me, life is about taking those walls down and making oneself stronger. During one hospital visit, I met a little boy who was currently in the hospital for chemotherapy, and that little boy changed my perspective on everything. His mother said after we were done that this was the first time he had smiled so big in a long time. The band members who accompanied me were amazed at how much the kids liked their music, despite the fact that they might’ve never heard their songs before. The time I spent with this little boy is something I continue to hold dear to my heart, and it was a shocking experience to see such a young boy face such a big illness like cancer with a smile on his face. He was a child, no older than nine years old, handling it with such strength it inspired me. It was a moment that made me see the good in this project, in music and art and how it could really benefit someone going through such a hard time. It truly showed me how art could heal the heart.

art heals the heart 2

To continue my project, I have created a blog that details my experiences throughout my project and further on. I have a page dedicated to writing prompts for children to write silly poems or stories, an age-appropriate music playlist, and a documentary following my time throughout my entire project. There are also videos and photographs of my time spent in the hospital on the blog, and videos of the bands interacting and playing the music for the children. Even though I have put a lot of effort into my project, I believe that the need for more awareness and resources for music and art therapists in hospitals and other care facilities is greatly needed. The hospital I primarily brought my project to did have a music therapist, but not all hospitals do and I believe it’s definitely something they should look into making a possibility. This cause is something I feel needs to be addressed more often. Children shape our society, and we influence them as they develop into adulthood. Teaching children how to handle situations like illness would be beneficial to them for the rest of their lives, considering how common things like cancer and disease are in our current society. The ability to cope, both physically and mentally/emotionally, will also be important later on in life when they are forced to deal with other stresses and pressures. The skills I try to teach the children I work with hopefully will carry on throughout their lives and they can look back on what they were taught, reflect on what I said, and adapt those skills so they can use it in everyday situations when the need arises. To be recognized by the Girl Scouts for the work I put in to this project is a great thing, but I’d much rather the cause be recognized than what I had done to help. I think that there still needs to be progress made in the music and art therapy field. Now that our society is becoming more focused on things like different art forms and different types of music, the benefits of both should be made more prominent. Art therapy is not black and white, it is not cut and dry, and that is something most people fear for no real reason. What is the worst thing that could happen? It doesn’t cure cancer, but it doesn’t claim to, either. It helps relax the patient, helps them separate themselves from the illness they have and it helps to keep them calm. Tell me why people should be hesitant to try it, when there are only positive results.

Kristen Grennan

Follow Kristen on Twitter @KristenGrennan Kristen Grennan joined Sensible Reason in the fall of 2010 while living abroad in France. She helped co-manage Binghamtronica Presented by Oxfam and HeadCount in March of 2011 and graduated from Binghamton University in May of 2012. Besides writing for Sensible Reason, Kristen taught English in Le Havre, France and is a backpacking hooper and hippie. Kristen is currently enrolled at Columbia University and is seeking a Masters in Public Administration with a specialization in International Media, Advocacy, & Communications.

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