Agrace Hospicecare News

As published in Madison Magazine, written by Greg Hettmansberger.


“All people will experience the profound impact of live classical music, regardless of their level of functioning.”

What a wonderful vision statement for a group of musicians. And that vision has been a reality for years now in Madison. Arguably the best-kept arts secret in our region, the program known as HeartStrings has quickly managed to impact at least seven nations on three continents—and thousands of people who likely couldn’t set foot in a traditional concert hall if they wanted to.

HeartStrings is a community engagement program that brings live, interactive music performances—by some of the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s top musicians—to health care and residential facilities to reach listeners of all ages, most of whom are challenged with physical and emotional disabilities of varying degrees. More than just a series of concerts, these visits have sparked extraordinary cognitive, emotional and physical changes in the audiences they’ve reached, and the impact on the musicians has been equally powerful.

So how did it all begin? First, members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and educational staff took their art to new audiences. Then they wrote the book on it, or at least they published a hundred-page toolkit.

MSO director of education and community engagement Michelle Kaebisch and then-education assistant Shannon Lobdell coauthored “HeartStrings: A Guide to Music Therapy–Informed Community Engagement for Symphony Orchestras.” The manual covers every aspect of setting up a program that, in the case of the MSO, encompasses ten events per month, at ten different facilities, from September through May.

It is “music therapy-informed” because no licensed music therapist is present at the events—or needs to be. One of the key developers of HeartStrings was Laurie Farnan, a now-retired music therapist who coordinated the music therapy program at the Central Wisconsin Center in Madison from 1975 to 2011. CWC, a state residential and treatment center for people with developmental disabilities, continues to be one of the ongoing venues for HeartStrings, which has touched more than thirty other countywide facilities, running the gamut from children’s hospitals to retirement facilities to community centers, over the years.

Following publication in January 2011, the HeartStrings toolkit quickly caught on—the first copies were purchased by the Weill Music Institute of Carnegie Hall, and today dozens of musical organizations, healthcare facilities and colleges and universities have duplicated or emulated the program in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Germany, Greece, Australia and New Zealand.

Here in Dane County, the HeartStrings mission is carried out by the Rhapsodie Quartet, made up of four strings players who occupy prominent seats in the MSO. Co-concertmaster Suzanne Beia is the lively leader of the group, joined by violinist Laura Burns, principal violist Chris Dozoryst and princial cellist Karl Lavine. Beia does most of the arrangements of the music herself, presenting a different program each month of about fifty-five minutes or so, based on a theme or idea.

A program last year at the nonprofit Mobility Training and Independent Living Program was called Americana. Selections ranged from numbers from West Side Story to songs by Gershwin and Porter. An audience of about twenty MTILP patients attended; virtually all of them used wheelchairs. When they couldn’t easily participate using the sticks, tambourines, egg shakers and other various handheld percussion instruments Beia periodically distributed, their attendants would join in, often touching their patient’s arm or hand.

It can be difficult to detect quick cause-and-effect results in such a setting, yet one could feel the smiles in the room. “At a place like MTILP,” Beia says, “it’s not always easy to see the outward signs of the audience members’ response to our music, but with a few years’ experience, one can learn to observe the more subtle signs—eye contact where previously there was none, a clenched fist relaxes slightly, respiration grows deeper, slower … These small signs have come to mean as much to me as any backstage compliments at a ‘normal’ concert.”

A program a few months later at the Agrace Hospice & Palliative Care had a different feel. Invitation to the Dance was enlivened not only by Beia’s irrepressible energy, but also by an accompanying slideshow showing pictures of tangos, waltzes and gigues. About a half-dozen patients attended, along with family members and a couple of staff personnel. For an outside observer, the growing sense of life-affirming energy transcended any usual concert hall event. But how do the players process the fact that one or more of their listeners on this day will probably not be there when the Rhapsodie Quartet returns the next month?

A couple of days after the Agrace performance, Beia provided an answer that also gave great insight into the many ways HeartStrings is able to touch lives in so many different circumstances.

“When I first heard about this new program the symphony was starting to develop, I was the first to be skeptical,” she says. “What good could my skills contribute, I wondered, to these people whose needs seemed so much more basic than music? But, as I began to observe the reactions and responses of the audiences we played for, my skepticism slowly began to change into conviction, then passion for the HeartStrings mission … My work with HeartStrings reminds me, on a daily basis, of the difference music can make in people’s lives. The opportunity to provide a woman with advanced dementia the joy of recognizing a beloved and familiar melody from her childhood in Vienna; the attempt to reach inside the mind of an autistic boy, forging a connection through music between the outside world and the beautiful spirit locked within. I am aware when I play at Agrace—when I play anywhere, actually—that that performance might be the last music that someone will hear on this earth, and keeping this awareness in the back of my mind helps to keep me in the moment, and reminds me to fill each performance with as much emotion and love as I possibly can.”

Overture Center and the UW–Madison campus might be the first places that come to mind when one thinks of the power of great music in Madison, but be reminded that the eternal spark-of-life quality in music is happening in and around our city—in places where “bravo” and “thank you” seem more inadequate than ever when the playing stops.



As printed in the January 2015 issue of Brava Magazine, written by Marni McEntee.

Since their arrival on-staff last year at Agrace HospiceCare, Malika Evanco, director of human resources, and Alia Dayne, the agency’s first diversity coordinator, have often worked hand-in-glove to ensure that the nonprofit agency’s employees, volunteers – andall patients and their families – reflect the community as a whole.

Already at Agrace’s facility in Madison, Evanco has helped make a “visual improvement” in staff diversity, Dayne says. Yet nearly all Agrace’s palliative, hospice and respite care-provided by 530-plus employees and more than 1,200 volunteers – takes place outside the brick-and-mortar sites in Madison, Janesville and Baraboo. Most care happens in nursing or assisted living homes and private residences.

Evanco says Agrace must equally hire and care for people from communities of color. “While we are growing, if we really want to be reflective of the community that we serve, this has to be important to our organization. It has to be important to who we are and what we do,” Evanco says. And it is, thanks to a revised long-term strategic plan.

In addition, starting this year Dayne will oversee a new minority certified nursing assistant (CNA) scholars program to provide scholarships and employment to students of color. Most of Agrace’s leadership team has a nursing background, so these scholarships will allow new employees to move up through the ranks.

Through community outreach Dayne also is addressing minority communities (which account for roughly 15 percent of the area’s population) to ensure these traditionally underserved populations understand how hospice care can serve them, its mission – or even simply, its existence. Through visits to schools, churches and community centers, she explains that care can be covered by Medicare, Medicade, private insurance and even community-funded grants. She’s also discussing death and dying with communitties in which the subject is taboo.

Death is an issue that everyone deals with eventually. That transcends diversity. But, that message hadn’t been conveyed as well to minority communities before because it wasn’t coming from someone within their community.

“When people walk through the door, they want to see people who look like them,” Evanco says.

In the end, the two say, the entire population benefits. Better health care and better end-of-life care mean fewer visits to the emergency room, lower health care costs and a better quality of life for all.


JANESVILLE—Lys Wilson took a seat in Glen Vigdahl’s walker/scooter. Using the tips of her shoes, she rolled it as close as she could to his bedside so she could hear him speak.
“So tell me, what have you been doing?” she asked the 82-year-old Agrace HospiceCare patient, who lives at Rock Haven nursing home.
“My brother brought me that Christmas tree, a maintenance man put it up and two or three others decorated it,” he said, pointing to the table stand.
“You don’t have any presents under it,” Wilson said.
“There’s cookies,” Vigdahl teased before the two burst into laughter.
An Agrace HospiceCare home care volunteer, Wilson visits Vigdahl weekly when the two quietly chat, play games, watch TV, go to the activity room or outside when weather permits. “If he’s not feeling good, I’ll just sit at his bedside and we talk,” Wilson said. She has been doing so for about a year and never misses unless she is ill or on vacation.
Vigdahl looks forward to Wilson’s visits and thinks of her as family. “She’s somebody interesting to visit with. It’s just nice to talk about the news in the world and visit about old times,” he said.
Wilson, 74, Milton, is among 130 active Agrace volunteers serving Rock County, said Andrew Boryczka, manager of volunteer services for Agrace. Yet, “Agrace can always use more community members who want to help their neighbors in Rock County by being a volunteer,” he said.
Aside from visiting with patients in their homes, volunteers can also serve in Agrace’s new inpatient unit in Janesville, Boryczka said.
“Volunteers greet visitors at our front desk, and visit with patients who are staying in the facility,” he said.
Agrace also opened a thrift store this spring in Janesville where volunteers are needed to help run registers and sort donations, Boryczka said.
“There have never been more opportunities to volunteer in Rock County for Agrace,” he said, even though volunteers like Wilson donated more than 71,000 volunteer hours in 2013 to Agrace.
“Without volunteer support, we simply could not provide such a high level of care to patients and families. Many patients would be less able to stay in their homes or would have to rely on paid help or friends and family with things like housekeeping and errand running,” Boryczka said.
“Volunteers, who make a big difference, provide socialization that would also not necessarily be available to patients,” he said.
In addition to visiting Vigdahl, Wilson volunteers in many ways for Agrace. She delivers meals to patients as part of the Celebration of Life program that partners with local restaurants to provide special meals to patients. She also goes out at night and sits bedside with imminently dying patients as part of our vigil program, Boryczka said.
“Lys is a very active volunteer,” he said.
Courtney Endicott, volunteer coordinator for Agrace in Rock County, dubbed her a “superstar.”
“She’s a volunteer willing to try anything,” she said.
Through regular visits, Wilson has learned she has much in common with Vigdahl. “We both attended one-room schools and have farm backgrounds,” she said.
She always brings something related to the holidays to brighten up his room.
An American flag decal still clings to the window behind the drapery in Vigdahl’s room. Wilson put it there in July.
She even mails postcards to him from travel destinations and knows he enjoys them because the one from Boston still hangs in his room.
Wilson encourages others to volunteer for Agrace.
But, she said, before doing so “You have to feel it in your heart and make the commitment to the program.”


Ashton Newell, the manager of the Cost Cutters hair salon at 1334 W. Main St., was recently honored for her volunteer service at Agrace’s Ellen and Peter Johnson HospiceCare Residence in Fitchburg.

Newell, along with Bekah Schulze, manager at Cost Cutters in Portage and Angela McIntosh, a stylist in Madison, received the award from Cost Cutters of Madison, consisting of 50 salons in Southern Wisconsin and Northern Illinois.

Once per week, Newell donates her time and talent to provide haircuts and styles for residents at Agrace HospiceCare, Fitchburg. Bill Kaminski, Madison, owner of the Cost Cutters salons, created a salon at the hospice residence in honor of his late sister several years ago whom he cared for and arranged hospice services for her.

Barbara Graham, inpatient volunteer coordinator at Agrace HospiceCare said patients leave the salon with their spirits raised. “It’s a bright spot in the day for our patients to have their hair done and we thank the Cost Cutters stylists who donate their time and talent to terminally ill patients,” Graham said. “They make a world of difference to the patients they serve.”


My favorite Mary O’Meara story, and she told some good ones, was set in Kalamazoo.

She was Mary Froning then, playing professional baseball in a women’s league that blew through the Midwest like a fresh breeze in the 1940s and ’50s. One year, the league drew a million fans. The scene was colorful enough that in 1992, Penny Marshall, Madonna and Tom Hanks made a movie about it called “A League of Their Own.”

O’Meara — Froning — played outfield for the South Bend Blue Sox. “They expected us to play like men but look like ladies,” O’Meara told me, during a chat some years ago in her home on Madison’s West Side. “We played in skirts with shorts underneath.”

Part of the deal was a 10 p.m. curfew on road trips, which is why O’Meara and her teammates enjoyed road games against the Kalamazoo Lassies. Karl Winsch, the manager of the Blue Sox, planted himself in the hotel lobby, to make sure his players stayed inside, and out of mischief in Michigan. Winsch, however, had miscalculated.

“The elevator in the hotel went to the basement,” O’Meara said.

It’s doubtful the escapees caused too much trouble. They were having too much fun playing baseball. “The most enjoyable four years of my life,” O’Meara, who played from 1951-54, said later. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) folded in 1954, victim of a diminishing fan base that had discovered television.

There was always the danger that they might be relegated to a footnote in baseball history, but that didn’t happen. The movie was part of it. But four years before “A League of Their Own,” the AAGPBL was honored with a “Women in Baseball” exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, a display that has since been expanded and made permanent. The passion of the women who played the game made that happen, and one of them was Mary O’Meara.

O’Meara, who died last month, at 80, at Agrace HospiceCare, lived in Madison for more than 50 years. (There will be a celebration of her life on Jan. 10, time to be determined, at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish.)

After baseball, she moved to Rockford, and met Tom O’Meara, whom she married in 1958. Tom’s job brought them to Madison, where they raised four children. Their daughter, Kathy, is married to Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney.

O’Meara led an active life in Madison — raising the kids, working part-time, playing and coaching a variety of sports — and didn’t seek attention for her earlier life as a baseball pioneer. Still, she was happy to talk about it if a reporter came calling, as I did in 2008.

I’d heard a 73-year-old woman had been asked to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on opening day at the West Madison Little League Softball-Junior League, a league for girls in their early teens.

It was O’Meara, of course, we met at her home a few days before she was to throw out the first pitch. We sat under a framed poster of “A League of Their Own,” signed by a number of the AAGPBL players.

It started, she said, with a stroke of luck. O’Meara grew up in the small village of Minster, Ohio, longing to play sports, but lacking opportunity. She swam, rode her bike, and jumped when given the chance to play weekend softball with a Catholic Youth Organization team.

She proved a natural, fast on the base paths, with a rifle arm from the outfield. Luck arrived one Sunday in the person of a board member of the AAGPBL’s South Bend Blue Sox, who was visiting his mother in Minster, and saw O’Meara play. Soon she had a contract for a tryout.

The AAGPBL was started in 1943 by Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley, who feared World War II might suspend Major League Baseball, which didn’t happen. The women, who first played softball, were a hit. The league expanded from four teams to 12, and by the time O’Meara signed her contract, in 1951, they were playing hardball, and pitching overhand. Out of 100 women at the try-out, O’Meara was one of four selected. She earned $50 a week.

They called her “Fearless Froning” for the way she crashed into fences chasing long fly balls in the Blue Sox outfield. Across her best two seasons, 1953-54, O’Meara got 136 hits and stole 58 bases. Her biggest thrill might have come early, in her rookie 1951 season, when the manager, Winsch, put her in a game for the first time, as a pinch-runner. “I’ll never forget it,” O’Meara said.

In the end, she forgot none of it. O’Meara attended the unveiling of the exhibit in Cooperstown in 1988. There were tears. All the players in attendance received lifetime passes to the Hall of Fame. It might have meant more than the movie, an official acknowledgment: they belonged.

Of course, the movie was great fun. O’Meara met Penny Marshall, who directed “A League of Their Own,” and the cast during the filming.

In 2003, a decade after the movie’s release, there was another honor, enshrinement in the Milwaukee Brewers’ Walls of Honor at Miller Park. O’Meara threw out the first pitch that night, before a game with the Cubs.

Five years later, it was the first pitch at the start of the Little League season in Madison. I had wondered if she was nervous about that. After all, she was 73. “I can still throw,” Mary O’Meara said.

  • For hospice patient, a life lived with art offers healing powers near the end
  • Donuts and a run with cops in support of palliative care
  • Open House Highlights Local Opportunities to Volunteer with Agrace
  • Congressman Paul Ryan Visits Agrace

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