Since 1972, one organization has been adding the melody to mature, the swing to senior and the rhythm to retired.
Funded in part by the Spokane Parks and Recreation Department, Project Joy offers a wealth of musical talent. Composed of 40 acts, featuring 220 entertainers age 50 and older, Project Joy provides music and entertainment for area retirement centers, assisted living facilities and community centers.
Recently, guests at the East Central Community Center enjoyed one of the organization’s most popular acts, a bluegrass band called Just Friends. The center’s seniors program director Kathy Armstrong, said, “I call them every month and plan a lot of special events with Project Joy music. It’s wonderful to see older people out there performing and giving back.”
However, as Just Friends launched into a lively rendition of “Red Wing,” it became apparent that one of their members was definitely under 50. Fourteen-year-old fiddle player Abigail Christensen, joined Joe and Carlene Young, Linn Edmonson, Jim Shamp and Ken O’Donnell.
“She keeps us young,” said Joe Young with a grin.
Carlene Young explained, “In the summer we have a lady our age play the fiddle with us, but she’s a snowbird, so we get Abby to fill in for us.”
Christensen may have been the youngest person in the room but as her fingers flew across the fiddle strings it became obvious that she wasn’t a novice. “I’ve been playing since I was 3 1/2,” she acknowledged.
Tables decorated with bandanas and miniature red and blue cowboy hats set the stage as the warm, folksy sound of bluegrass music filled the room.
The appreciative crowd got into the swing of things by clapping and singing along to “I Saw the Light.” And moments later, when the band performed the old ballad, “A Daisy a Day,” the sweet three-part harmony brought smiles to many in the audience.
But bluegrass is just one musical genre featured by Project Joy. Armstrong said the Hauoli Dancers are another favorite at East Central. “It’s three or four ladies decked out in the most amazing costumes.” The dancers demonstrate the graceful Hawaiian hula as well as other Polynesian dances.
In addition to small groups, the organization features the 50-member Project Joy Orchestra conducted by Kevin Hekmatpanah, associate professor of music at Gonzaga University. And the Senior Serenaders choir has expanded to 50 members, as well.
“We entertain between 400 and 500 times a year,” said Project Joy program director Bob Smick. “We’re always looking for new members.”
According to Smick, requirements for membership are few. “Time and effort,” he said. Then he chuckled and added, “A little bit of talent would help.”
Smick believes Project Joy members benefit as much as their audiences. “It’s great to be part of a group, and as an entertainer you enjoy going out and performing.”
Joe Young agreed. “We do this for the fun of doing it.” He gestured toward the audience at East Central, “To see them get up and dance and have a great time – that’s our paycheck.”
Indeed, the enthusiastic audience responded to every number with cheers and applause. It was the first time Rosemary Wailiula had attended a Just Friends concert. “Oh, they’re good!” she said. “They remind me of North Carolina. I lived there for a time and they play this kind of music.”
The selection of songs struck a chord with the audience. When Linn Edmonson crooned “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine,” he dedicated it to “all the silver-haired daddies in the world.” It was difficult to find a dry eye in the room as he sang, “If I could recall all the heartaches, dear old Daddy, I’ve caused you to bear. If I could erase those lines from your face and bring back the gold to your hair…”
Couples reached for each other’s hands while a staffer passed boxes of tissues. But the tears didn’t linger as the band swung into “High Cotton.” Heads nodded, toes tapped, and smiles wreathed wrinkled faces.
After the performance, new fan Carol Curtis said, “They’re voices are so soft and mellow and really blended together.”
Mary Ann Heitner has attended many performances by Just Friends, as well as other groups from Project Joy. “They’ve got the right name,” she said, smiling. “They bring such joy to our lives.”