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Tidewater Arts Outreach: Bringing People Joy

Tidewater Arts Outreach

Musician Jim Hockett visits with 104-year-old Ella Sunders at Lake Taylor Transitional Care Hospital.


It’s been decades since John Hopkin performed on WTAR Radio in Norfolk under the stage name of Pistol Packing Pete. But the retired butcher and amateur singer easily recalled the words to “On the Road Again” as musician Evan Cochran picked out the tune on the dobro. The 50 minutes Hopkin spent singing, listening and clapping to bluegrass music was a highlight of the week for the residents of Norfolk's Lake Taylor Transitional Care Hospital.

“I love music,” says Hopkin, who frequently sings in the hall of the hospital. “It touches your heart and puts you back where you once were.” For Hopkin and the 50 other hospital residents, the concert returned them to their more youthful days and let them forget their failing bodies.

Hopkin, 85, settled his wheelchair on the front row so he wouldn’t miss anything. Next to him sat 104-year-old Ella Saunders wearing a pink hat and matching nail polish. She smiled and nodded as she recognized “You Are My Sunshine” and other tunes performed by visiting bluegrass band Cedar Road. Karen Cochran, the band’s bass player, likes playing at nursing homes because “it’s wonderful to bring people joy.” Her band’s performance was sponsored by Tidewater Arts Outreach (TAO).

Since 2004 TAO has linked artists and musicians with people who can use art and music in their lives. Artists run the gamut from the Hampton Roads Youth Guitar Ensemble to well-known composer BJ Leiderman. A typical month includes performances at more than 20 area nursing homes, homeless shelters and crisis centers. Musicians include steel drummers as well as singers of Broadway show tunes and everything in between. TAO also sends visual artists who help people in shelters and nursing homes express themselves through art projects.

Mary Ann Toboz, TAO executive director, is a guitarist and arts advocate who founded TAO six years ago. In 2010 TAO is dispatching more than 250 artists to entertain 5,000 people attending 300-plus programs at more than 65 different facilities. Each artist is paid a small stipend of about $30.

TAO has grown from all volunteers working from their homes to four part-time staff members who moved into the organization’s first real office in 2009. An $11,105 grant from the Hampton Roads Community Foundation bought desks and computers for the Norfolk office. The move let the organization be more efficient in its work. The grant also paid for percussion instruments that audience members use during performances. An additional $3,000 grant from the former Virginia Beach Foundation in 2009 helped support the organization.

Toboz relishes bringing the arts to people who wouldn’t normally get to experience them. “For our clients, at the very least, our programs change the mood, lighten the atmosphere and bring smiles. At the most, they can be life changing.”

Susan Degariff, a Lake Taylor recreation coordinator, agrees. Looking at the audience of people enjoying music from their wheelchairs, she says: “This music perks them up. You can see their eyes light up and them tapping their feet.”

Learn more at twartsoutreach.org