“We’re here to give them a little light and a little love”


This is a picture of the Strummin' Sisters Ukulele Group, which is a part of the Fresh Expressions Hugs Ministry, performing at a Memory Care Facility in The Villages


For Debra Campanello, it was a direct message from God.
 
“Learn the ukulele and use it for ministry,” she said. “That what I kept hearing. But I didn’t know the first thing about it.”
 
Besides, she was already in a quilting ministry at New Covenant United Methodist Church in The Villages.  And who learns how to play an instrument at age 64?
 
But Campanello isn’t one to ignore a divine directive. So she took lessons, immersed herself in YouTube videos, and practiced every single day. 
 
That persistence paid off. Now she’s the coordinator of the Fresh Expressions HUGS ministry at her church, taking her new musical talent to retirement centers, independent living facilities, and memory care units to bring a little joy, personal attention and love to elderly residents.
 
Launched in 2016, HUGS has grown to some 50 New Covenant volunteers who make weekly visits to eight local facilities. The ministry includes the all-female ukulele group called the Strummin’ Sisters and a four-piece musical group that leads sing-a-longs, stories, devotions, and prayer.
 
The hour-long visits always conclude with hugs for the residents.
 
“We save the best for last,” she said. “The purpose is to let them know they are loved, by us and by Jesus. Some of them hug back and won’t let go.”
 
At first, the visits were jarring, especially in the memory care units. Some of the residents seem lost and alone, and are unable to communicate. But as Campanello and her fellow volunteers have learned, the power of music and personal touch can be transforming.
 
She’s learned how to communicate with those who can’t. 
 
“I approach them very gently, call them by name and touch their hands,” she said. “If their heads are down, sometimes they look up, and I get a big smile. I can’t tell you how that makes my day.”
 
Strummin' Sisters, Fresh Expressions Hugs Ministry, at Assisted living facility in The Villages 
Campanello rehearses one night a week with her fellow strummers and creates a new musical program every month. She’s also in charge of all the logistics and email communications. To improve on her skills, she still practices regularly at home.
 
“The best part is that I’m still married,” she said with a laugh.
  Pete Popko plays in the four-piece band that makes Wednesday visits three times a month. They play maracas, tambourines, a guitar, and a keyboard, relying on songs that may trigger happy memories from their past.
 
“It’s a lot of joyful noise,” he said. “To be honest, we really don’t have rehearsals. These are songs we all know by heart. And even though some of the residents are no longer able to sing or respond, we believe we’re triggering memories deep from within.” 
 
HUGS is a perfect fit for him. He loves to sing, and had previously performed in small dinner theaters, community and church choirs, and other small groups. When he moved from Rhode Island to The Villages, he began searching for a musical outlet and found it in his new church’s ministry.
 
Popko acknowledged it's not the typical audience he’s accustomed to, but it’s the most appreciative one.
 
“The most popular request? ‘How Much is That Doggie in the Window’ gets the most reaction,” he said. “We play everything from hymns to patriotic songs to campfire favorites.”
 
The closing number is always “Jesus Loves Me,” with audience members encouraged to hold hands.
 
Popko, who served 27 years active duty with the U.S. Coast Guard and 13 years as a civilian, said this may be one of his toughest assignments. Yet, it’s also one of the most rewarding.
 
“You know the people you’re performing for will be not getting any better. In fact, they will likely deteriorate as time goes on, and eventually, they just won’t be there anymore,” he said.   “We’re here to give them a little light and a little love at a time in their lives when they need it the most.”
 
He’s learned to check his ego at the door. He noticed a woman at one of the facilities who always came to their performances with a big smile on her face. She would tap her feet and sway to the beat of the music. Popko was thrilled they were making such an impression on her. 
 
So, after one of their sing-a-longs, he approached her and told her how glad he was to see her enjoy their presentations.
 
She looked straight at him and said, “Am I supposed to know you?”
 
For Popco, the visits are the highlight of his week.
 
“Singing is something I love. And what I love even more is seeing their reaction and knowing we’re making a positive impact for the Lord,” he said.
It takes a special dedication to minister to the elderly, especially those with dementia.
 
Retired bishop Ken Carder of South Carolina told United Methodist Communications they are the “most marginalized” of all people.
 
He knows this firsthand: His wife was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia in 2009. After decades of serving the church, he now was charged with caregiving duties.
 
The experience and his desire to start a conversation in congregations led him to create a five-part study called Alzheimer’s/Dementia: Ministry with the Forgotten (https://www.tnumc.org/dementiaresources/), which provides free downloadable videos and a leader’s guide. 
 
In his work as a chaplain in a local memory care unit, he’s learned several valuable lessons in the last decade. Most notably, dementia patients live in the moment.
 
He said it’s a mistake to assume they are not capable of having a faith experience. Carder believes strongly they have spiritual needs and can communicate at a spiritual level.
 
“We often underestimate their cognitive ability in worship,” Carder told United Methodist Communications. “They can have amazing insights  - insights that are more from the heart than the brain.”
Carder is a big proponent of creating worship services that connect with those with cognitive impairment and to “proclaim in word and deed” that God holds human identity and worth.
 
That’s a role HUGS regularly fulfills, Campanello said.
 
“I didn’t understand God’s call at first. But I’m grateful every day that I answered it,” she said.
 
“Just picking up the ukulele and playing it makes me so happy, no matter what’s going on in my life. Now I get to share that joy and love of Jesus with others in a setting that I never expected. And it’s been an incredible blessing.”
 
--Michelle Bearden is a freelance writer in Tampa.
 

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