Vanderbilt Kennedy Center and ACM Lifting Lives Welcome New and Returning Campers to Virtual 2021 ACM Lifting Lives Music Camp

June 1, 2021

The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) (TN IDDRC, UCEDD, LEND) and the Academy of Country Music's philanthropic arm ACM Lifting Lives® teamed up once more for the 12th annual ACM Lifting Lives® Music Camp. This was the second year camp moved to a 100-percent online format in response to COVID-19.

The camp is made available through a longtime partnership between ACM Lifting Lives® and the VKC's University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD). ACM Lifting Lives® funds the costs of the camp in addition to providing scholarships to several campers, enabling the VKC to advance its mission of improving the lives of individuals with developmental disabilities and their families through research, training and service.

New and returning Music Campers from all over the U.S. and Canada came together via videoconference from Apr. 25 through May 2 to participate in a week of virtual activities and sessions, joined by ACM recording artists and songwriters including Priscilla Block, Ross Copperman, J.T. Harding, HARDY, Parmalee, Restless Road, Payton Smith, and Lainey Wilson.

"It was the best virtual experience I've ever had," said returning Music Camper Josh Dean, who hails from Willow Spring, N.C. "There were a lot of surprises this year, especially the ACM people who took time out of their busy schedules to welcome us with open arms. It just puts a smile on my face."

Studying Williams syndrome

ACM Lifting Lives® Music Camp is a residential program for individuals with Williams syndrome and has a dual purpose of studying Williams syndrome while providing music enrichment through performance and education. In a typical year, Music Campers visit Nashville in late spring/early summer, lodge in Vanderbilt University dormitories, and take part in camp activities, ending the week with a live performance at the Grand Ole Opry, during which campers perform an original song they wrote together.

Williams syndrome is a rare genetic condition (estimated to occur in 1 in 7,500 births) that causes medical and developmental problems. Williams syndrome is associated with an unusual pattern of strengths and weaknesses in linguistic and cognitive profiles, as well as intellectual disability. It is present at birth and affects males and females equally, can occur in all ethnic groups, and has been identified in countries throughout the world.

Vanderbilt researchers Elisabeth Dykens, Ph.D., and Elizabeth Roof, M.A., worked alongside clinical research coordinator and Music Camp director Hailee Hunt-Hawkins and VKC executive assistant Marlo Goff to coordinate a schedule that would allow research with the campers to continue without interrupting the fun of Music Camp for too long.

"Last year, late in the game, we just said, 'We're not going to do the research component.' We chose to pool our resources to focus on the camp experience," said Hunt-Hawkins. "This year, we had more time to plan, so our research team create private breakout rooms away from the main meeting area to pull individual campers for their 20-minute research activity, and then they'd come back to rehearsal. We also had parents complete some questionnaires ahead of time, which is typical, and we're still reaching out to campers to complete some other evaluations.

"Our research was not as robust this year, but if COVID has taught us anything, it is that we need to pick our battles. It was a nice way to see that we are able to adjust," Hunt-Hawkins continued. "We have this three-prong approach of research, training, and the camper experience, but in actuality, our priorities are exactly the opposite. First it's the campers, and then it's training new clinicians, and finally we are gathering data. That's what I love about working with 'the Elizabeths.' We get the best data when we have the best relationships."

2021 ACM Lifting Lives® Music Camp: Week at a Glance

Music Camp would not be complete without some (virtual) visits from a few ACM country music recording artists and songwriters!

"Music Camp is a highlight of the year for campers, artists, and participants alike, so we didn't miss a beat hosting virtually again," said Taylor Wolf, ACM Lifting Lives® manager. "After a year of watching live-streamed concerts and staying safe at home, we were thrilled to work with Vanderbilt to offer these incredible campers a personalized, interactive music experience that made them feel they traveled to Nashville once again. A huge thanks to all the artists and country music community that joined in to make this possible!"

Lainey Wilson joined the campers for a live zoom interview session via Seacrest Studios, where the campers did a Q&A with Wilson. The interview session was hosted by studio manager Mamie Shepherd and broadcasted to a closed-circuit network for the patients at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt to also tune in.

On another day, the campers learned a TikTok dance that concluded with a guest appearance from Priscilla Block, after whichthe campers also gave her some tips for her Grand Ole Opry debut. Campers later jammed out to a live performance from Restless Road before competing against them in a Country Music trivia game.

One of the most anticipated events of camp is the songwriting session with renowned producer, songwriter, and repeat Music Camp contributor Ross Copperman, this year alongside J.T. Harding and HARDY. Campers wrote their own original song, "Happiness," after a live performance from HARDY of one of his own songs "A Rock." For a second year, each participant individually recorded their vocals for a final song compiled by Copperman. Later, campers had a new experience with a special ACM Awards Show panel consisting of ACM Awards executive producer RAC Clark, ACM CEO Damon Whiteside, and ACM Lifting Lives executive director Lyndsay Cruz. Campers had the opportunity to learn about the recent 56th ACM Awards ceremony, television production in general, and about the panelists themselves.

Spread across two days this year, ACM Lifting Lives® Music Camp wound down with a robust talent show performance from each camper, featuring special appearances from Parmalee and Payton Smith live via Zoom. Following the weekend activities, camp concluded with a touching goodbye party where the campers spoke about what they hope for in next year's camp.

The plus side to a virtual conference

One positive change to moving ACM Lifting Lives Music Camp to a virtual format is allowing more participants than could be possible in-person.

"We thought about having 60 campers for all of camp, but because so much of what we do is highly interactive, it would be hard to welcome that many at once," said Hunt-Hawkins. "So what we did was, we had our morning and afternoon sessions for our 30 core campers like Josh, and then we had an evening session that was open to past campers, people who'd never been to camp but expressed interest in the past, and anyone 18 and up with Williams syndrome.

"We had trivia one day, we had a panel with folks at ACM, two nights of talent shows because we had two nights' worth of talent... It was so cool, because it brought new energy after being on Zoom for so long."

"It was so great to meet the new campers," Josh Dean added. "I think they're going to do great when they get to meet in-person."

"I think they made this virtual camp work the best they could with the situation, and the experience itself was still fantastic," Josh's mom, Therese Dean, said. "The thing that's so exciting to me about this is the research that will be available for up-and-coming parents about what they can expect from their teenager or young adult. Everybody should go if they can."

"I want to thank Hailee and the Vanderbilt staff for continuing this camp after all these years," Josh added. "I've been quite a few times, but I still have that same excitement when I get accepted. I'm so happy to participate. There's not that many opportunities for people with developmental disabilities to enjoy this type of environment."