Concert aims to help imprisoned, at-risk youths' 'Lost Voices' be heard
“Do you have a poem for us?” the musicians asked the young girl in the room. Everyone else had shared something in the songwriting workshop at a youth detention facility in Adrian.
“I can’t write, not like them smart girls,” she said. But she kept coming back.
“Then she showed up the third week with so many abrasions that she looked like she had been thrown out of a moving truck,” says Mike Ball. “She had found a piece of carpet and every part of her was rubbed with carpet burns—that’s how much self-loathing this girl had.”
But the fourth week Tammy (not her real name) came back with a poem:
Love is not hard to find.
You can find it in a friendly place,
You can find it in a friendly face,
Love is not hard to find.
“As soon as she showed us the poem, I heard this,” says Ball, picking up his guitar and strumming some chords. Soon, he and his team had put music to Tammy’s words.
At the end of the six-week workshop, the kids put on a concert for their peers. Tammy saw her poem come to life on stage.
“I explained to the kids that the most important song in the concert is the last song because that’s what the audience leaves hearing—it sticks in their mind,” says Ball. “So we used Tammy’s song because it was catchy. And everybody was clapping, and as I was standing there I heard all the “pretty and smart girls” going out and singing her song. I said to Tammy, ‘Hey listen to that. That was your song.’ You saw that kid open up like a flower. She may never experience that in her life again, where she’ll have that affirmation.”
The idea for Lost Voices was born in 2005 after a teacher asked Ball to come to WJ Maxey Boys Training School in Whitmore Lake for career day to talk about his work as a writer and musician. The school is a maximum-security prison for youth, some as young as 12.
“I went in there and I had to go through all the airlocks. It’s frightening. You know this is prison,” says Ball. “Then here come the kids, down the hall, wearing yellow shirts and khaki pants and detection devices on their wrists and guards with them. Here they came, and they are children. That was my first thought—I’m in prison and I’m in a maximum-security facility inside the razor wire and they are children. These are kids who are murders, rapists: they’ve been involved in terrible things and they are from terrible backgrounds.”
That’s when the idea was born to try to do more. Ball applied for a grant which resulted in the documentary "Young Poet Incarcerated." Now he works with other musicians who have joined the cause: Kitty Donohoe, Josh White Jr., and Robert Jones.
At the start of a program, the kids typically sit slumped over, arms folded, some rocking, most with their faces hidden and eyes averted. By the end of the first session, most are engaged.
“The thing that always strikes me at first is that it’s a little scary,” says Donohoe, one of the Lost Voices team and Emmy award-winning singer and songwriter who will perform at Saturday’s concert, “especially working with the guys who are three times bigger than me. But without very much time passing at all you realize they are just kids. A few of them kind of keep a mask up for a long time, but almost always at some point they let it down and when they see other students sharing their stories they share as well.
“When we do the final concert in front of all the kids and the whole school, we get chills,” says Donohoe. ”The last one we did was in Waterford and the audience gave standing ovation after standing ovation. These kids were just glowing. They are being validated in a pretty powerful way for their thoughts and feelings. It’s pretty amazing.”
So far Lost Voices has reached more than 200 kids in various correctional facilities, and Ball has presented his techniques to professionals around the nation.There have been music therapy programs in prisons for years. So why does Lost Voices work so well?
“One of the things I’ve learned about this is I have to get completely, emotionally involved,” says Ball. “The teachers have to be there every day and they have to have defenses. I’ve worked in an emergency room and you have to get to the point where you can hold the hand of a 15-year-old girl who is bleeding to death—you have to have shields. The kids have BS detectors and they know that. I ‘m in a position where I don’t have to be there every day. I can go in there with my shields completely down, and the kids know that and they drop their shields too.”
It’s a combination of that, Ball says, and his background. He’s a musician, father, former kids' hockey coach, and worked as a creative director in an ad agency for 28 years.
“Creative people are not easy to direct," says Ball. “They have their own ideas because they love what they do. If you can manage to recognize that and honor it, let them do what they do and be appreciated for it, they will do unbelievable things for you and be happy. “
“At first even what some of these kids write about is defensive,” says Donohoe, “but when we get to the end of the program, these kids, all of a sudden they are writing more openly. You wonder if it’s a conclusion they’ve come to, or if it’s already in there.
“Some of them are only 12 and are already lifers. It just blows you away. You wonder what went wrong where, how far back. They started out like any other child or baby and something went wrong pretty seriously wrong,” says Donohoe.
“These kids are so wounded—so damaged in so many ways,” says Ball. “They all just really want it to be different, but they don’t know how to make it different. They are just playing the game. It is what it is; it is what it has to be. But we can make a difference.”
Like the boy who was released and had a chance to kill again, but didn’t.
Like the girl who had been raped by her father, and wouldn’t open up to her therapist, but was willing to put her feelings into song.
Grammy award-winning virtuoso harmonica player Peter Madcat Ruth, who will be performing in Saturday’s benefit concert, had a chance to sit in on one of the programs.
“It was pretty amazing,” he said. “These kids feel so powerless and uncreative. They were encouraged by Mike to write poetry, and then he brought in musicians and put the poetry to music. The kids were astounded that what they wrote down could be turned into music. They were very excited about it. You could see it in their faces.”
Ruth says he was very moved by what he saw.
“It changes their whole attitude really, about living,” says Ruth. “It’s very powerful stuff. “
Unfortunately, when and if released, most of the kids return to the same places that made them what they are.
“Most of these kids are in prison because they come through such intense upbringing and their family situations are often awfully miserable,” says Ruth. Because Ball isn’t legally allowed to track the kids, it’s hard to get grants for his work. There are no numbers, no statistics.
“The fundamental thing is that we plant a seed of self respect in the heart of each child,” says Ball. “They get that one moment of knowing I’m worth something. When you are on stage and get people applauding, there’s nothing like that. That child knows there’s a touch of greatness in them. Hopefully they can draw on that. These kids have tough lives ahead of them, and there’s no way I can change that.
“The best comment I’ve ever had—and it happens every time—is when a kid walks up at the end of each program and gives me a hug and says ‘I’ll never forget this as long as I live.’”