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Check Out Jess Blaisus’s Story

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jess Blaisus.  

Hi Jess, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today?
I’d never heard of music therapy until I found an open job position with Resounding Joy in 2015, but since that time, I’ve learned that it’s an incredible force for good in the world. 

Resounding Joy is San Diego’s primary nonprofit provider of music therapy services and is celebrating its 20th anniversary next year. I manage our fundraising, marketing, design, some events, IT, program management, grant writing, evaluation, admin volunteers, and more. We call it “Director of Engagement” since 90% of what I do revolves around how I engage our community – either through programs, communications, or personal connections. 

How did I end up here? 

I grew up in suburban Ohio with parents who have a strong work ethic and academic standards. I was homeschooled, which gave me the benefits of having more opportunities to chase programs and topics I was truly passionate about. At the age of 14, I auditioned for the role of Anne Frank in my very first play. In my favor, I looked significantly like her at the time, and I received the role. I fell head-over-heels in love with theater and continued to do community theater throughout the Northeastern Ohio area, taking any role from the ensemble to the lead. After completing high school in 3 years through a distance learning program, I decided to stay close to home and attended Cleveland State University. After switching my major a few times between film and theater, I ended up graduating summa cum laude with a double major in communications and dramatic arts. 

However, the catch was that I graduated in 2010, in the middle of a recession, with a creative arts degree. I looked at the writing on the wall and took my savings, and with my parents’ support, moved to Staunton, Virginia, and pursued a master’s degree in Shakespeare and Performance. My dream was to travel to a country with a small performing arts troupe. Then life happened. 

One St. Patrick’s Day, my friend encouraged me to come to her party. As the unrelentingly boring and responsible one, I pleaded that I was busy with homework. However, she wheedled me into it, encouraging me to meet her boyfriend’s best friend, Benjamin. So, when a small beige car parked on the street, I was already curious about who he was. Little did either of us know, that the boyfriend had likewise wheedled his friend into coming to the party. Benjamin had previously declared that he would marry any woman who could beat him with a longsword. I only had fencing foils to duel him with on that day, but apparently, it was sufficient. We married in Richmond a year after my graduation with my master’s degree. 

During the year I spent in Richmond, I worked as the Arts and Education Intern for Virginia Repertory Theatre. This was my first foray into arts administration, and I found that I liked it. I’d also shifted my priorities after what more or less served as a pilgrimage. Directly after my graduation, I explored England for a month, mostly in London for the World Shakespeare Festival. Sitting at Shakespeare’s grave in Stratford-Upon-Avon, I realized how empty his epitaph was. 

“Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbeare, 

To dig the dust enclosed here. 

Blessed be the man that spares these stones, 

And cursed be he that moves my bones.” 

At his death, the only words that remained for people to remember him by was a cold warning against disturbing his grave. Yet, on the wall to the upper right, another epitaph sat perched on the wall. I can’t recall the exact words or the name of the person, but neither is necessary. It warmly remembered a wife and mother, a woman that the community treasured for her kindness and care for her family. I chose to follow the path of the woman, placing people above art. This meant setting aside my dream of a traveling troupe, as the sacrifices required would not set me on the path toward helping my community. 

A week after Benjamin and I married, he started a job as a civilian contractor. He was already a US Marine, but as a reservist, his employment outside of the Corps was low-pay and not in his field. I lucked out as well and got a position as Development Associate at Virginia Stage Company, where I remained for over two years. Virginia State was my introduction to grant writing and fundraising, and I learned an incredible amount. I continued to develop my passion for arts management. 

In May 2015, Benjamin received orders to move to Active-Duty service, and we moved to Camp Pendleton, California. During the long road trip moving across the country, literally from one ocean to the other, I listened to “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed, which influenced my attitude and goals over those several years. I fell in love with San Diego County, discovered Resounding Joy, and found an amazing team. I spent many weekends hiking new places, like Iron Mountain and the Lake Calavera trails. Daydreaming on my commute from Camp Pendleton to Sorrento Valley, either idling in the car or sitting on the train, even came up with a book – a book I then wrote and self-published in under a year of feverish work. 

In September 2017, the Marine Corps sent us on another adventure – Okinawa, Japan. To my gratitude and relief, I was allowed and even encouraged to keep my job with Resounding Joy remotely – as much as I was able to do, of course. We lived on Camp Kinser, the southernmost base on Okinawa, for three years. Okinawa is an incredible place with a rich history, once the home of the Ryukyu Empire. I gave birth to my first child at the Naval hospital there, experienced my first typhoon, and swam in the crystal-clear waters of the Zamami Islands. I made incredible, life-long friends among the other families on base, and explored Cambodia, Hong Kong, and Korea. 

Moving back to the states was difficult, not just logistically. And in February 2021, I gave birth to twins. The last year and a half have been a challenge to manage three children while maintaining part-time employment. 

I’ll share more about the next stage of my journey in the next question. 

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
While I’ve had some unexpected bumps, my road until 2020 was relatively smooth, with the exception of three and a half years of infertility and a miscarriage. While I tended to bite off more than I could chew, I also thrive on remaining busy and conducting multiple projects at once. However, the last two and a half years have been much more stressful. Our apartment in Okinawa was closed for renovations and we had to move, four months before we had to move again to leave Okinawa. Moving internationally with a toddler in a pandemic was a logistical nightmare and not just the uncertainty of military airfare. For example, the military only funds ten days of the hotel after arriving here, so without signing for a home sight-unseen, we had ten days to visit, sign, and move in. Without a home address, we also couldn’t buy the insurance required for a car and needed to fund a rental. I did all of these things while managing an almost-two-year-old, in my second trimester, during COVID-19 while fighting unrelenting morning sickness. What’s more, even when we secured a wonderful home in Orange County, it would still be months before our belongings arrived. And shortly after that, I gave birth to twins via c-section a month premature, and only four months later, Benjamin was gone at training for four months (although he was able to return for about 4-5 visits during that time). Double sleep deprivation, while managing a toddler, has pushed me to my limit. While my mother lives with me, as a military spouse, I do not have local or military support, especially in Orange County, which doesn’t have any significant military presence. 

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know about your work?
Resounding Joy enhances the human experience through the therapeutic use of music. The team uplifts individuals and families with challenging conditions, helps them achieve their goals, and supports health and wellness throughout the community. 

Music therapy is the use of research-based interventions administered in a therapeutic relationship by a Board-Certified music therapist (MT-BC). While music therapists are skilled musicians, their primary expertise lies in creating a therapeutic experience, selecting appropriate and effective interventions, and helping the client achieve their non-musical goals. This musical versatility is invaluable when supporting group music-making, participants’ songwriting efforts, or modifying musical instruments for adapted lessons for individuals with disabilities. Every session is interactive (virtual or in-person), whether it involves improvised music-making (such as drumming), lyric analysis, songwriting, singing, creative arts, guided relaxation to music, or adapted music lessons. 

Most of Resounding Joy’s program participants will experience the effects of a diagnosis throughout their lives, whether it is PTSD, a brain injury, Down syndrome, congenital heart disease, or a rare disease. Music’s unique ability to target and navigate damaged areas of the brain and transcend verbal communication makes it a powerful tool in the hands of a qualified professional. Yet for those individuals who lack access to facilities or the funds to personal finance such services, music therapy remains an unrealistic treatment option, despite its many proven benefits. 

The team invests in services for individuals and populations with a specific hardship that has a detrimental effect on the quality of life, especially when clinical, published research indicates that music therapy can offer a statistically significant improvement on one or more of their needs to which they would not otherwise have access. Currently, Resounding Joy focuses on: 

– The Ariana Miller Healing Notes program for hospitalized and medically resilient children and their families 

– The Semper Sound Military Music program for service members, veterans, and their families 

– Community Connections for the health and wellness of the region, particularly for isolated older adults, first responders, homeless individuals, the LGBTQ+ community, at-promise youth, and also through volunteerism. 

HEALING NOTES 

Medically resilient children may have begun their lives rushed to a neonatal intensive care unit or arrived safe and healthy, with no intervention needed. A life-altering diagnosis might have been made in utero, giving parents time to prepare and educate themselves at birth (such as cerebral palsy or many heart defects), or been the result of a catastrophic accident (brain injury). Or, in some cases, a parent’s intuition that ‘something was wrong’ led to a series of doctor’s appointments and a terrifying revelation (brain cancer). Some parents are still searching for answers and a clear direction on what treatments might help their child. 

Cost, distance, physical accessibility, insurance delays or denials, and more, all present barriers to these children receiving appropriate creative arts therapies and music engagement programs. These issues are exacerbated in communities already facing health and economic disparities. Healing Notes breaks down barriers to accessibility and offers the benefit of music engagement at a critical point in these children’s development. Music therapists provide services in the settings most beneficial to these children or where it is most needed, including the local children’s hospital, in-home care, or at partner sites for group sessions. The program also teaches caregivers how to use easy music interventions at home. 

Music therapists address clinical goals through evidence-based, non-invasive interventions disguised as a musical play. The team focuses first on improving quality of life. Woven into that are individual session objectives, addressing the myriad of needs these children have, whether developmental delay, emotional expression, or physical challenges. In addition to supporting clinical goals, the team is currently developing surveying and reporting systems to measure the program’s impact on the Flanagan Quality of Life Scale. 

Resounding Joy is the sole music therapy nonprofit offering services to San Diego’s medically resilient community; no comparable creative arts therapy organizations support the local population. Resounding Joy will work with a variety of partner organizations serving the target population, including Gigi’s Playhouse, The Elizabeth Hospice, and Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego. 

SEMPER SOUND 

Our Semper Sound Military Music Therapy Program improves the health, well-being, and quality of life of military service members, veterans, and their families through music arts activities, therapies, instruction, and opportunities to perform. Semper Sound’s trauma-informed programs are enhanced by the expertise of Board-Certified music therapists (MT-BC), who serve as coaches, teachers, and guides for participants. 

Military service members and families face experiences and challenges not shared by their civilian counterparts. Transitioning from military to civilian life brings a new wave of stressors as families navigate VA systems, seek employment, overcome culture shock, and carve out new identities for themselves. Injuries such as Post-Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury exacerbate these issues and spouses often shoulder the burden of caregiving. 

Despite these challenges, the military’s culture of strength attaches an unfortunate stigma to mental health needs. When unaddressed, problematic behaviors cause a cycle of reinforcement, which, in the worst cases, results in disciplinary action/loss of employment, broken marriages, abuse, substance use disorder, homelessness, or suicide. A Boston University study estimates that 30,177 active-duty personnel and veterans of the post-9/11 wars have died by suicide, significantly more than the 7,057 service members killed in post-9/11 war operations. With this perspective, mental well-being is just as, if not more, important than a bulletproof vest. 

Semper Sound addresses the unmet yet critical need of the military community by offering a spectrum of music engagement activities and opportunities, from songwriting workshops to one-on-one music therapy sessions. Music therapists’ training ensures that they can recognize signs of overstimulation, disassociation, and other symptoms of posttraumatic stress or brain injury. Participants benefit from: 

• Improvements in clinical goal areas, including pain, anxiety, depression, anger, and symptom management,

• Having a better understanding of themselves and others by creating or engaging with art,

• Improved supportive relationships in their life and a sense of belonging to a community,

• Reassurance they can rebound from stress, unexpected events, or life’s challenges, and

• Advancement in both an individual and shared sense of purpose, as well as positive self-worth, supports adapting and readjusting to civilian life.

Current literature demonstrates that music-making can have positive benefits. For example, music therapy can enhance social integration and quality of life for military populations, enhance patient motivation and participation in interdisciplinary care, assist treatment processes from clinic to community, and provide a platform to prevent social isolation by promoting community integration through music performance (Vaudreuil, R. et al., 2018). Semper Sound seeks to capture these benefits by developing a two-pronged approach, recruiting from ongoing clinical programs as well as the local veteran community at large to create a meaningful path for reintegration and wellness. 

COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS 

Community Connections is a program of Resounding Joy that provides music programs to any part of the community. Specific populations include individuals recovering from addiction, people experiencing homelessness, youth in challenging circumstances, teens with young children, survivors processing trauma, and first responders managing stress. Each of these programs is grounded in evidence-based protocols and addresses the client or facility’s objectives. 

Mindful Music is a Community Connections program available to seniors enrolled in community care facilities, including assisted living and memory care, throughout the greater San Diego area. This program trains community volunteers (Joy Givers) who, under the guidance and supervision of Board-Certified music therapists, deliver supportive music services directly to isolated older adults. Mindful Music provides seniors with invaluable social experiences, as well as improved quality of life, by fostering physical well-being, healthy attitudes, and enrichment for mind, body, and spirit. This is free of charge, but availability relies entirely upon the success of Resounding Joy community fundraising and philanthropic grants. Because of this and other Community Connections programs, marginalized members of the community are given the opportunity to explore music in a safe, inclusive environment. 

Risk-taking is a topic that people have widely differing views on – we’d love to hear your thoughts.
I’m generally very risk-averse. If I am taking a risk, there needs to be a clear benefit. Is marriage a risk? Absolutely, but it gave me an incredible life partner. That said, like any military spouse, I’ve also had to make sacrifices for my partner’s career. Is pregnancy a risk? Without a doubt – especially a twin pregnancy, but together I now have three bright-eyed, energetic children. Again, that said, kids are expensive, and my ability to travel and follow other pursuits is severely limited. 

Everyone is a risk-taker. The question is, which risks are you taking, are you understanding what the consequences might be, and what is the benefit you are hoping for? 

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