Bellingham band turns developmentally disabled into rock stars

In the beer garden at Boundary Bay Brewery, members of the band “Out of the Ashes” are singing, tapping on cowbells, and playing harmonica and keyboard as they rock their way through “Lean on Me,” “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Daydream Believer.”

The audience claps along at different times, plays tambourines or maracas themselves, or just kicks back and enjoys a beer this sunny Tuesday, June 9, during the weekly concert that’s put on by the band made up of developmentally disabled adults. This is the band’s third summer at Boundary Bay.

Leading them and playing guitar is Jon Dalgarn, a professional musician from Bow who launched the music program in Bellingham five years ago and has seen it grow from about four to 15 people, with 10 consistent participants. The interactive music program is also in Skagit and Snohomish counties.

The idea is to give those with developmental disabilities an outlet for creativity, a way out of their shells, a voice they didn’t maybe have before, a place to belong. Members perform to the best of their abilities.

For Dalgarn, it also was important that people be more than watchers.

“The premise is all about giving somebody a platform or venue to be involved with making music, not just going to a concert, but actually being a part of a group, and playing and making music,” Dalgarn said.

Band members included Bellingham resident Tim Day, who was playing on the keyboard Tuesday. Day, who has cerebral palsy and blindness, has been part of Out of the Ashes for four years, ever since hearing the group for the first time.

“Tim was hooked,” his mom Debbie Day said, adding that to her music-loving son, Out of the Ashes is his band.

“It isn’t a game. It isn’t a practice. This is a band,” she said. “It has allowed that interest in music. He believes in himself: ‘I am a musician. I am worthy, just like anybody else.’ ”

She also praised Dalgarn.

“He treats them all as if they’re just normal human beings without any disabilities,” Debbie Day said. “They really appreciate that. They’re not treated differently.”

Also on the stage this Tuesday is Jim Monroe, who has been part of Out of the Ashes since it started in Bellingham. Maureen Monroe said her son, who has a rare genetic disorder called Smith-Magenis syndrome, isn’t verbal — until you give him a microphone.

“He will know all the words to a song. It blows me away,” Maureen Monroe said.

She also talked about her son having a sense of belonging.

“He’s become part of something. It’s almost like he’s allowed to be himself, which is an autistic young man complete with the syndrome he has,” Maureen Monroe said.

Dalgarn isn’t a licensed therapist. Still, the music program is therapeutic because it helps people who have developmental disabilities, as well as the community at large, by bringing them together and uniting them through a shared joy and love of music, according to Dalgarn.

“You see this group having so much fun. You realize you’re having fun, too,” he said.

Before a session gets going, it can seem a bit chaotic. That changes with the first song.

“Once the music starts, these guys are in,” Dalgarn said. “Music being whatever it is — intellectual, spiritual, emotional, all those things — it’s almost an immediate response.”

Jud Sherwood, founder of The Jazz Project, was among the professional musicians on stage Tuesday. He has been volunteering with the group for about 18 months, ever since he saw members at the beer garden banging on instruments and singing their hearts out.

He helped the program obtain a $5,000 grant from the Whatcom Community Foundation.

“It not only changes their lives but their lives change other people’s for the better,” Sherwood said.

He said it was important that this “special part of the community is included because it involves so many more people than just your own ego about how good you are or how good you could be. It’s bringing out goodness in everyone.”

To those involved, the band taps into that dream of being on stage.

“They’re all rock stars,” Debbie Day said. “You’ve never seen a group that’s so encouraging and caring about each other.”

To Dalgarn, Out of the Ashes showcases what’s always been there.

“These guys knew they had something inside all along,” he said. “We didn’t. They did.”

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com.

See the band

The Bellingham band Out of the Ashes, an interactive music program for adults who are developmentally disabled, plays 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays in the beer garden at Boundary Bay Brewery, 1107 Railroad Ave. in downtown Bellingham, through summer.

Out of the Ashes then will switch to the VFW Hall, 625 N. State St. in Bellingham, from 4 to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays during winter.

The first session is free so participants can decide if the program is a match. After that, there’s a fee of $15 per week for those who want to join the band.

More on the program is online at outoftheashes.us and on Facebook.

Or contact founder Jon Dalgarn at 360-770-2404, or musicman@wavecable.com.