Written & Photographed by Laticia Headings

Like many other Middleburg businesses, A Place to Be found itself in jeopardy of an uncertain future in March amidst a global pandemic. However, with strategic planning, thoughtful execution and a generous donation from a board member, the musical therapy non-profit has recreated itself during the Covid-19 crisis. 

When APTB was co-founded by Tom Sweitzer and Kim Tapper in September of 2010, it was meant to help an underserved population – people with disabilities, medical and mental challenges, and at-risk youth – using scientifically-based music therapy practices, as well as therapeutic and expressive arts. 

Though the mission has evolved over a decade, the main tenants of the organization remain the same: to help people face, navigate and overcome life’s challenges through music. “We use music therapy as an intervention tool to help people who have any kind of challenge in life to find some sort of healing,” says Sweitzer, who worked at The Hill School as a theater teacher for 15 years prior to founding APTB.

With a staff of 23, APTB sees roughly 180 clients every week at their Middleburg center, ranging in age from three to 90. “Some clients see us two to three times a week. We have a large population of children and adults with autism that really depend on a schedule and this (pandemic) has blown that out of the water. Putting us back into their lives is key.” 

When the statewide, stay-at-home order was given on March 30 by Governor Ralph Northam, a week after non-essential businesses were ordered to be closed, 12 full-time music therapists found themselves at home unable to work. Sweitzer admits, “Being a small non-profit, the immediate fear is ‘What is going to happen to the company?’ but because of our board and executive director we had enough resources to at least begin this journey of being closed…we were smart enough to prepare for a rainy day. This is not the rainy-day fund I thought we were preparing for.” 

Sweitzer, who is the creative director, Tapper, who serves as director of family & client services, and John Tong, the executive director, were determined not to lay off or fire staff members. Together with board members, they put their heads together to discuss ways to work virtually and keep the staff busy. 

“The first couple of meetings I felt scared,” says the music therapist, who has a BFA in Music Theater and a graduate certificate in Music Therapy from Shenandoah University, and a master’s degree in Music Therapy from Berklee College of Music. Sweitzer wanted to provide ongoing virtual support and services to APTB clients during a time of uncertainty and high anxiety. In fact, he wanted to make services free of charge for two months and open it up to the community at large as a short-term program. 

After expressing his idea to the board, one member (who wishes to remain anonymous) generously donated $100,000, allowing the newly-minted program to be initiated on April 7. Because of the bequest, APTB is able to provide free music therapy sessions to all existing clients, plus 150 new people from high-risk families in Loudoun County who may need it, all for free. “We are partnering with Loudoun County Public Schools who put it out to the counselors at each school to see if they have families who need services during these eight weeks,” says Sweitzer. 

By opening it up to the schools, high risk kids suffering from emotional trauma, anxiety, depression, and isolation are able to get therapy that otherwise might not be available. Sweitzer continues, “The main goal is to create a place where anxiety can be squelched through breathing techniques, communication, and expression of fear. To have students engage in something outside of their house. For a lot of these kids, having something to look forward to is a big deal.”

Even with the technical difficulties that come from working through a computer, the team is flooded with requests. “We are seeing 300 families a week virtually. We work with executive functioning, giving clients tools musically that they can use to decrease anxiety or use when depressed to alter their mood,” comments Sweitzer. In addition, APTB has four Facebook Live sessions a week for students – one each for elementary, middle and high school, plus one for parents. Sweitzer offers, “We are music therapists, and this is what we know. We’re not psychologists or psychiatrists but this is our tilt on what we can offer the community at this time.”

A Place to Be will soon be sharing something else with the community. Behind These Trees is a commissioned musical for Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts written by Sweitzer. The performance was scheduled for May 12 but is now pushed back until July. Virtual rehearsals are happening through the popular video communication platform, Zoom. “We have a cast of 20 kids with varying talents and abilities and they all meet on Zoom,” he says. 

The first day of rehearsals, Sweitzer heard from the father of a 17-year old cast member with autism. “His dad said he was so excited that he got all dressed up that morning for his 2 p.m. rehearsal with castmates. It was like Christmas for him. Giving these people something to look forward to is just huge. For a lot of them, socialization is tough anyway so even having Zoom is a bright spot in their day.”

Currently, the non-profit has clients predominately in Middleburg, Purcellville, Leesburg, Sterling and Chantilly. APTB will continue to have a permanent home in Middleburg but future expansion plans are in the works. Sweitzer remarks, “In the last two years of growth, I could really see the trajectory of where APTB was going in the next 10-20 years. We have a plan for the fall called The Next Decade Fund, which will give us a platform to launch the next 10 years.” Outreach will allow them to broaden their client base and help more people. 

On the precipice of their 10-year anniversary, APTB didn’t imagine they would be here – working virtually from home during a pandemic. But the non-profit has risen to the challenge and is getting creative in the face of adversity to help people, pioneer a new frontier and stay vital. ML

For more information on A Place to Be, visit aplacetobeva.org.