Bob Rowe bursts into a chorus of “This Little Light of Mine,” and residents at the Grayling Nursing & Rehabilitation Community in Grayling, Mich., tap their toes and sing along—except for one woman, who slumps dejectedly in her wheelchair.
“I went over, kneeled down, looked right into her face and sang just to her,” Rowe recalls later. “She lifted up her head really slowly, gave me the biggest wink you ever saw and grinned. Then she straightened up in her chair and started clapping and singing.”
Such transformations are nothing new to Rowe, 51, a performer and songwriter who started Renaissance Enterprises in 1988 in Portage, Mich. (pop. 44,897). Through the nonprofit organization, nearly 30 musicians, theatrical performers, storytellers, painters and clowns bring the arts to shut-ins by presenting more than 200 shows yearly at nursing homes and other institutions in Michigan and surrounding states. Contributions from churches and other organizations and sales from Rowe’s CDs help defray their costs.
Through the years, Rowe has witnessed hundreds of smiles light up the faces of withdrawn seniors and disabled residents as he croons such coax-a-grin classics as “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and “Goodnight Irene.” He’s seen elderly patients with Alzheimer’s disease, who couldn’t recall their own names, sing the entire lyrics to “You Are My Sunshine” without skipping a beat.
“We’ve had residents with dementia who were so agitated and irritable we didn’t know if they could stay for the performance,” says Ronda Bolin, activity therapy leader for Lakeland Continuing Care in St. Joseph, Mich. “Then Bob starts interacting with them, and soon they are laughing and smiling. He takes them to a happier place.”
Rowe and his fellow entertainers sing nostalgic favorites from the 1930s and ’40s such as “As Time Goes By,” gospel standards like “Old Rugged Cross” and “How Great Thou Art,” and Christmas carols. He insists that performers who volunteer through Renaissance Enterprises have “the right heart.”
“Bob knows many residents by name, and he sings to them and makes them feel very special,” says Kathy Libbrecht, activity director at Park Place Assisted Living Center in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Last September, the St. Bernadette Institute of Sacred Art in New Mexico named Rowe a 2006 Mother Teresa Laureate, citing his work and adding him to a prestigious list of previous laureates that includes former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and poet Maya Angelou.
Rowe says he always has felt “blessed” to perform for the elderly and disabled. As the oldest of six children growing up in Battle Creek, Mich., he was especially close to both of his grandmothers, one of whom helped care for Rowe’s family for many years after his father suffered a heart attack. A great-aunt with two developmentally disabled sons further instilled his compassion for others.
“I saw my great-aunt in her 80s pushing two grown men to the toilet in their wheelchairs and shaving and feeding them without complaining,” Rowe recalls.
When he was a teenager at Battle Creek’s St. Philip Catholic Central High School, he accompanied the nuns to play guitar for shut-ins. Later, when traveling the country on the club circuit as a folk singer, he gave volunteer performances at local nursing homes.
“In 1980, I got a contract with a Catholic music publisher to publish my inspirational music in hymnals,” Rowe says. “This is when I realized I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life.”
After a show, nursing home residents with canes, walkers and in wheelchairs file past Rowe to shake his hand, hug him and ask for an encore visit. They look like parishioners thanking their pastor after a particularly touching sermon, which is not surprising.
When Rowe was younger, he wanted to be a priest. Now he has his own musical ministry, one that gives him the chance to witness miracles almost every time he plays.
Visit www.visioncouncil.org/bobrowe/ for more information.