Sacramento, CA — If you polled residents of California’s State Capitol “What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Steve Young?” it’s likely tales of Super Bowl greatness, heroic scrambles and probably some Rocklin training camp meet & greets would be amidst the responses. Sierra College in Rocklin (just outside Sacramento) hosted the 49ers training camp from 1981 to 1997, a period seeing five San Francisco 49ers Super Bowl Championships, so they feel personally connected to many of Young’s on-field heroics which were a major part of his Hall of Fame career.
Yesterday it was a different Young’s heroics that are affecting lives, this time off the field. That Young? Barb Young, Steve’s exuberant wife whose vision, along with Anne-Marie Barton and the Forever Young Foundation, are harnessing the healing power of music to impact children’s lives at the second facility of its kind in the country, Sophie’s Place at Sutter Children’s Center in Sacramento.
It was the summer of 2010 and Sophie Barton, an aspiring singer/songwriter who many have described to have a heart of gold, had spent many hours over the course of the year using her talents and positivity to share that light with children in hospitals in the Salt Lake City area. For a busy teenager who was involved not only in school, but also playing music venues with her songwriting cohort (her sister Tessa Barton) all around the state, dedicating 100 hours to helping kids was impressive to say the least.
Sophie, as many who met her felt, was a light that burned so bright she was destined to be a star. Her talent was undeniable. Her energy, contagious. Friends, family and classmates say she lit up a room when she entered it and was notorious for funny impressions as well as pictures she would post on social media.
On June 28, 2010, while attending a girls summer camp in Utah, Sophie’s heart beat its final beat . She passed from a sudden heart arrhythmia that was too much for her body to endure. It was a sudden and tragic occurrence that shocked her family, friends and community. The girl with the golden heart, it seemed, would no longer inspire and share her fervent love for life with those she encountered. Or would she?
Enter Barb Young (Co-Founder & Co-Chair of the Forever Young Foundation) who had a dream after Sophie’s passing about using music in a therapeutic form to better the lives of sick and suffering children. She reached out to Anne-Marie Barton (Sophie’s mother and a childhood friend of Steve’s) and shared her vision. According to Anne-Marie, Barb was “…acting on her own motto. ‘Change Begins With You.‘” Young’s vision was focused on creating something meaningful that provided the love Sophie herself had provided with music and for others.
By choosing to include Sophie’s name, her music, the children she sang to, the healing that resulted and her wish to bring the light to those in need, they created the beginning of what would become Sophie’s Place. Only two weeks later according to Barton, the future Sophie’s Place was already born. One year later, Tessa released her first album.
The ensuing benefit concert and Sophie’s Place was advertised through social media thereby catching the eye/ear of the mother of now Sutter Anesthesiologist and master harpist Dr. Emily Zurcher. Emily’s mother forwarded the information to her daughter and things quickly transpired to put the works of a new Sophie’s Place location in Sacramento into action. It rapidly gained traction and through countless hours and donations of time, money and construction, it is now a reality.
Another key to making Sophie’s Place a reality is a guy who isn’t even an employee of Sutter. Zack Wandell. Zack has volunteered at Sutter since 2004 hanging out with kids 1-2 days a week for intervals of typically 2-3 hours per visit. He does art and plays video games with kids. He told me after all those hours he still gets beat at Mario Kart and Wii Bowling!
Zack saw the need for more funding for these children and decided to do something about it. He started the popular Donut Dash (donutdash.org) in 2009 to raise funds. Racers run 2 miles, eat 4 donuts then race back to the finish. With a simple goal of raising enough money to buy some X-Boxes and supplies, the Donut Dash raised $1,500 in the first year. By year 5 they were raising $50-60k annually and this past year surpassed the $100k mark. Zack also founded the Duck Dash of which 100% of the proceeds go towards music therapy.
Through Zack’s volunteer efforts Dr. Zurcher knew just the person to bring into the fold when looking to get Sophie’s Place a permanent spot in the new Sutter Hospital building. When approached in February of 2013, Wandell knew this was something that would come to fruition. It wasn’t long after, that interaction between Barton, Zurcher and Wandell became regular. Zack even shared with me about attending the ribbon cutting ceremony for the original Sophie’s Place in Salt Lake City and how the experience encouraged their efforts. He knew this would happen, as did all involved. It was just a matter of going through the formalities and getting in front of people who were potential donors. More often than not, if someone wanted to donate but didn’t know where or how, when shown the vision set forth for music therapy for children (and in particular Sophie’s Place) they knew they had found the right cause.
At Tuesday’s ribbon cutting ceremony Steve Young spoke of Sutter’s receptiveness when it came to the possibility of becoming the second location to house a Sophie’s Place. “This is a hospital [Sutter] that is on the forefront of serving women and children… And so, for Sophie’s Place it’s perfect. It’s the first hospital, in our perspective, that has had Sophie’s Place in mind as it was built. And in so many ways it’s our dream come true.” That dream was that of both Barb Young and Anne-Marie and it has tread amazing new ground for music therapy.
Young was also quick to thank the musicians that have helped promote Sophie’s Place. Imagine Dragons and Chester Bennington (Linkin Park/Stone Temple Pilots) have lent their talents for prior outings to help raise awareness of the program. Present at Tuesday’s ceremony was acclaimed artist John Ondrasik of Five For Fighting, along with Grammy Award winning Mark Isham, who accompanied Ondrasik on trumpet.
Their passion was apparent when asked about what music and being a part of of Sophie’s Place meant to them. Isham had this to say, “Music is my life, blood, and soul. It’s the language that I have dedicated my life to. I think it’s a very special language, so when this opportunity presented itself it was something, sort of a no brainer to support this. I know what music does for me, so for these children, this is special.”
Ondrasik’s words resonated similar to his counter part for the day and touched many when he shared how his song “Superman” was embraced by the autistic community upon its release. Many families would bring their kids backstage after a show. He mentioned that “even though some of these kids couldn’t interact with you, they might not be able to have a conversation, or look at you, but some of these kids could sing my song back to me verbatim.” He stressed the power of music and how he felt it was the perfect song for him to play to this audience which included children currently admitted to Sutter Children’s as well as those in attendance for the opening of this seemingly magical place.
For Anne-Marie Barton, Barb & Steve Young and all involved, this is indeed a dream come true. Born out of tragedy of a beautiful soul taken too soon and transformed into a movement fusing science with the supernatural traits in music, Sophie’s Place is positively a testament of Sophie’s true beauty. One of selflessness as evident in her desire to serve and see joy manifested in others.
A champion while surrounded by like-minded champions on the field, Steve Young has taken the same approach off the field with Forever Young. He, together with Barb’s passion at the helm and forged by their friendship with Anne-Marie Barton, intend to see many more Sophie’s Place locations established nationwide.
Sophie’s message is summarized in the slogan “Shine On.” On the Mother’s Day before her passing Sophie wrote her mom a song with that very title. They know that their mission to bring joy and healing to children through music is personified in these words. Every Sophie’s Place will have that title visible and through these words, and through the people that donate their time, money and efforts, Sophie’s legacy and spirit live on.
*The experience of Sophie’s Place deeply moved both myself and THF’s Andrew Kerr. Covering it was a great life experience for us both. From the children to the music it is a powerful way in which lives are being changed. We hope to somehow be involved once again with this wonderful movement.