Singing songs for joy

The Rat Pack Teens, made up of six south Charlotte teens – Michelle Ashlin, Caitlyn Dest, Caroline Kurani, Alex Lothspeich, Carter McKinstry and Emilie Tolley—spent their summer working diligently to organize, practice and perform musical programs at various retirement homes in Charlotte.

For Charlotte Catholic junior Michelle Ashlin, making her 90-year-old grandfather in Hospice Care smile was so simple. Sitting by his bedside, with keyboard and piano books in hand, her music helped bring joy in his final days – creating memories she’ll never forget, she said.
And while her main focus was putting a smile on her grandpa’s face, her melodies caught the ears of other patients, too.
“I saw my grandpa’s whole demeanor change,” Michelle said. “I could really tell that his day was brightened and then others started to listen in and I really started to see the difference I was making.”
So Michelle took the idea to the next level. She recruited friends, both musically talented and not, but who were enthusiastic about service and making the elderly feel special, especially in their times of need.
They call themselves The Rat Pack Teens and though the faces of the group have changed over the past three years, their mission hasn’t. Most recently, the group of six south Charlotte teens including Charlotte Catholic juniors Michelle, Caitlyn Dest, Alex Lothspeich, Carter McKinstry and Emilie Tolley, along with Providence Day School eighth-grader Caroline Kurani, entertained several residents this summer at The Carriage Club of Charlotte, The Regency Retirement Village and Carmel Place Retirement Community.
When the group first started, Michelle said they frequently sang pop songs and current tunes that most seniors might not know. But after realizing with familiarity comes participation, the group opted to sing oldies and old Broadway tunes from shows like the Sound of Music.
“The first summer we kind of did more pop songs, but the elderly don’t really relate to that sort of thing,” Michelle said. “Now we want them to be able to sing along.”
“It’s really touching to kind of see them join in,” Alex said. “It just makes you happy.”
Along with sing-along tunes, the group also dances and features some solo performances.
For Carter, a Charlotte Catholic football player, he wanted to join the group because it sounded fun, he said, but found the performances meant even more.
“I was pushed way out of my comfort zone,” he said. “I’m not much of a singer or dancer, but their response really made me feel good about what I was doing.”
Now, with school under way and athletics and extracurricular activities such as football, field hockey, soccer and tennis, or choir practice and youth ministry at church in full force, the students are busy. But that doesn’t stop them from planning for their next endeavor. Starting in November, the group hopes to begin rehearsing for a Christmas tour.
“We like to do Frosty the Snowman, Silent Night – songs like that,” Michelle said. The group typically has around four, two-hour rehearsals to prepare for a new performance, she added. “Sometimes we introduce new songs and some more fun stuff.”
But the extra activity is something the whole group looks forward to, saying the practice and performances are always worth the smiles. Overall, the group just hopes to make a difference in the lives of senior citizens, a sacrifice of time and kindness they are definitely willing to give.
“We realize the senior citizens might be a little bit lonely. They don’t get a lot of visitors on the weekends,” Michelle said. “I definitely think that there is a need for this sort of entertainment at area nursing homes. It makes us feel good that they are feeling happier.”
And for the moms, they couldn’t be prouder.
“I never had to encourage Michelle to be service-oriented,” Paulette Ashlin, Michelle’s mom, said. “She has the biggest heart and I wasn’t surprised at all. She loves her grandparents and she’s always just had respect for older generations.”
“One thing we’ve seen as parents is they not only bring joy to the residents, but they also take joy,” she added.

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