Operation Joy and Hope

You never know where you’ll find inspiration. For Christina Maxwell (BFA ’16, musical theatre), it happened during a jog through Nichols Arboretum. It was the end of summer, just before the start of her junior year, and Maxwell was ruminating over the sense of something missing in her life. Coming from a family that values community service, she felt a hunger to give back.

“Training for musical theatre-in such an intense program-is, by nature, completely self-focused,” she said. “You’re working on your craft and getting your voice in shape, and your body in shape, and it’s just very much ‘me-centered.’ I knew I wanted to engage with the larger community, using my gift in the arts, but I wasn’t sure where to look.”

On that fateful jog, Maxwell found her answer. “I was running near the hospital entrance, and I saw a little boy in a hospital gown in a wheelchair-bald, and obviously very sick. He was being pushed by a hospital worker through the rose garden and he had his eyes closed and his face turned up to the sunshine. It was so beautiful and so sad that it took my breath away. Two days later I was still thinking about that little boy and couldn’t stop seeing him. I went for another run through the Arb, and I saw a different child from the hospital in the same place and I thought, ‘That’s it; this must be a sign. I have to do something about this.'”

Maxwell went home, searched the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital website, and discovered Mott’s Family Center, which provides a spectrum of therapeutic programs for patients and their families. She sent her resume and a video of herself performing, and received a call the next day from Ann Hendrick, the Family Center Manager. In almost no time, Maxwell was singing Disney songs at the Family Center, something she continued to do nearly every Friday during her junior and senior years.

Bringing an assortment of small props and recorded musical accompaniment, she would sing familiar songs for the children, lighting up that hour of their day and giving Maxwell the community connection she craved. Soon she invited other musical theatre students to join her, with a group of four or five routinely visiting and performing in what is now known as “Music at Mott’s.”

“As a performer, I believe that this is what our work-at its best-is truly about,” said Maxwell.

“It was nothing short of magical seeing how despondent and hurting children are uplifted and encouraged by the music.”

Maxwell knew instinctively that Disney songs would have the greatest impact. “There’s something about Disney music and characters that these kids latch onto,” she said. “I think they relate so much to the flawed and very human traits of the characters, who teach them to find humor and courage and strength in their own quirks and the difficulties they face.”

The Disney lyrics resonate powerfully for the patients, says Maxwell. She would sing “For the First Time in Forever” (from Frozen) whose lyrics include: “I’m getting what I’m dreaming of, A chance to change my lonely world.”

“A lot of these kids are trapped in a lonely world,” said Maxwell. “They’re in this hospital-sometimes for years-receiving treatment.” She recalls being on the 12th floor, where children are necessarily confined to their rooms, and singing in the hallway while the patients watched her from behind glass. “I was singing the song ‘Let It Go’ (also from Frozen), and I heard this voice screaming ‘Let it go, let it go!’ I looked down the hall and this boy, who was probably 12 or 13, is in his hospital bed, and he didn’t have any legs. But he’s just singing ‘Let it go’ over and over again. It was amazing.”

The hospital was so delighted by the student visits that they created a short video about them. Posted on YouTube and shared on social media, the video reached more than three million people, with more than 770,000 views and 62,650 engagements.

“It’s hard to describe the magic that these students bring to the Mott Family Center every Friday,” said Ann Hendrick. “It’s our own version of ‘happy hour.’ Patients and families, who are often going through a stressful time, will be distracted by the singing and joy that the students bring to Mott. Everyone looks forward to Friday afternoons; the SMTD musical theatre students have created a wonderful Mott tradition.”

Maxwell graduated last spring and is now pursuing her dream in New York, where she has become involved with Artists Striving to End Poverty (ASTEP). She is currently training to do an “OnStage Experience” in which she will lead a performance workshop-it could be anything from an after-school program to a prison-in a selected NYC community in need of the arts.

Meanwhile. the Music at Mott’s program continues under the leadership of Jordyn Norkey, a musical theatre junior who says she’s obsessed with Disney songs. She oversees the schedule and recruits other students to participate, including regulars Halli Toland, Ben Walker, and Ben Ahlers.

“Mott has become my second home,” said Norkey. “Whenever I’m there I feel at peace because I know I’m able to A, spread complete happiness and hope to the kids and families, and B, sing Disney songs! It is such a hopeful atmosphere, whether we are singing or just talking to the kids and families. Mott is already full of so much joy and resilience that we are able to share in that when we sing.”

Norkey feels that the experience mirrors what she is taught to do on stage. “In musical theatre, that intimate relationship with the ‘other person’ gives us the motivation to sing. When we sing at Mott, we establish such a connection with those kids because we are sharing in the joy and hope that these Disney songs give us. Every single time, there is always one child who connects with us during a song. Singing in such an intimate setting allows us to be vulnerable, which for a performer is very special. I honestly feel my best at Mott because we’re not presenting anything. We are just there to connect with people and spread joy, and that’s what we do.”


By Marilou Carlin, director of communications and editor of Michigan Muse.