Let the Music Play

A foundation built on love and dedication

By Sue Baldani

When 21-year-old Dustin Jack Wells was killed in a car accident in 2005, the loss of this gregarious and loving personality shattered his entire family. What they soon came to realize was how much his loss was felt by others as well, and how many people would step up to honor Dustin’s memory.

The Dustin J. Wells Foundation was founded in 2008, and since then it has raised, through its annualGift of Music benefit concerts, more than a million dollars to help many amazing nonprofits with their missions.

Dustin was a music business major at Belmont University and a musician. “It was very clear when we were looking for ways to keep his memory alive, we were looking for works he would have supported,” says his father, Dr. Dennis Wells, a well-known cosmetic dentist with the Nashville Center for Aesthetic Dentistry. “The WO Smith Community Music School was an easy decision for us and it was a nice match up for Dustin’s interest and what he was about.” The school helps to share the gift of music with underprivileged children in the community.

The other main beneficiary is The Scott Hamilton Cares Foundation, which focuses on finding a cure for cancer. “We’ve been blessed to know Scott and Tracy Hamilton for many years and we’ve just always admired Scott’s unbelievable fortitude to rise up and really try to individually move the meter on cancer research,” he says. “We know that Dustin would have really been proud to help advance that work.”

Proceeds from the Dustin J. Wells Foundation also support many other charities and organizations such as Make-A-Wish, Feed Middle Tennessee, and Hy-Lake Christian Camp.

Being able to help others in their son’s name has been very healing, and Dr. Wells and his wife Doris credit many people with being instrumental in helping them find this path to healing. “One is my office manager of 25 years, Deb Ham,” he says. “She almost single handedly gets all the organization done and makes it all happen.

“Another person who is very integral to all this is my brother Kent Wells, who has always been very generous in getting the bands together year after year. He’s given so much to make sure everything works out well.” Kent’s son Derek, a well-known studio guitar player who has played on multiple number one records, also became involved along the way. He helped put bands together and asked various artists to join in on the cause to celebrate his cousin’s legacy.

In addition to being Dr. Wells’ brother, Kent is Dolly Parton’s long-time producer and musical director; Dolly is also one of Dr. Wells’ patients. The famous and fun country singer has enthusiastically taken part in the benefit concerts many times over.

“She is simply amazing,” says Dr. Wells. “It’s difficult to articulate how good she has been to our family and how caring she was about the loss of our son. She had actually met Dustin and knew him. It’s been awesome to have her on our team.”

Dolly has also been an inspiration for other artists to get involved. “When she comes along, everybody wants to come along,” he says. “She is so humongous in the entertainment world and so high profile that a lot of other artists will jump at the chance to be on the same stage as her or to meet her and be a part of the show.

“She is just a wonderful friend and wonderful person and the way she has reached out and helped us is just a small morsel of the good she does on this planet. What you see of her in the media is pretty much the person she is. She is delightfully brilliant, giving and loving. She has never forgotten where she came from.”

The Gift of Music benefit concerts have really developed momentum over the years, and then COVID hit. “We were very blessed to have so many people help us and create the Gift of Music brand,” says Dr. Wells. “Now, we’re concerned about how we’ll keep going, but also excited to get back and continue with it. We may choose to hold it in smaller venues or in private homes and do it on more intimate and exclusive scales while hopefully raising the same level of resources.”

He says they want to create an experience that’s unique and are looking at next February to introduce this new adaptation. No matter what, he, Doris and the rest of the family are dedicated to making sure that they continue to honor Dustin’s legacy through this wonderful foundation.

“When Dustin passed away, it was obviously so devastating that we didn’t know what to do,” says Dr. Wells. “This foundation has been about healing for our family. When you face that level of overwhelming grief you think there’s no way out. But when you start recognizing and looking up and realizing that his presence is still alive and well in so many ways, and he’s impacting the world even though he’s gone, all of that is a source of healing.”

To find more about the Dustin J. Wells Foundation, go to www.dustinwellsgiftofmusic.com.

[Side bar] Other artists who have generously donated their time and talent to the Gift of Music benefit concerts over the years:

Rascal Flatts, Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, Brookes & Dunn, Ronnie Milsap, Phil Vassar and so many more mega-famous musicians.

Written for Brentwood Lifestyle magazine in TN.

Making Art – Winning Hearts

Enjoying the fruits of his labor

By Sue Baldani

Art is truly subjective. Some people will love your work, and some won’t. For international top-selling artist Michael Godard, that’s okay.

“Being an artist, or being any type of creator, you have people who don’t understand what you’re doing or don’t like what you’re doing, and that might be a good sign that you’re really onto something,” he says. “I think it was Picasso who said, ‘If you’re not getting criticism, you’re playing it way too safe.’ When you’re passionate, genuine, transparent and honest about what you’re doing, you have to stick to that as your mantra because that’s at your very core.”

His method is working, and working well. Michael’s paintings are now selling for half a million dollars each and rising all the time. He’s on television shows like Bar Rescue, Mind Freak and Counting Cars, and good friends with Ozzy Osbourne and many other well-known people.

“When I started to create different types of art, I was only thinking about how I was going to paint, draw, and doodle all day and still be able to pay my rent,” he says. “That was my only goal.”

He’s obviously well exceeded that goal. Michael might be best known for his delightful and fun paintings depicting olives, grapes and strawberries. “When I started painting my silly little olives, it was more about me and expressing my life and my perspective. With my art, I’m just a storyteller.”

One of his favorite paintings is called “Love My Heals.” “When LeeAnn [his wife] and I were dating, I said I wanted to paint something fun, and was looking to paint a sexy pair of shoes.” He found the perfect pair – black and glossy with solid red bottoms. He told her he was going to buy her a pair. “She said, ‘You’re going to buy me Christian Louboutin’s?!’ And I thought, uh oh, what the hell is a Christian Louboutin?

“Wow, were they expensive! So in the painting, my wife is a strawberry hugging the heel and there are hearts emanating up above her, and there’s me as an olive standing next to her pulling out my pockets because I’m broke. Once I explain these depictions to fans, they start looking for those stories, and then they find one that resonates with their life.”

Not long ago, he also became the art curator for Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, where he resides. “I gathered 100 or so artists from the community and their works are now hanging inside the new $2 million stadium,” he says. “It’s the talk of the NFL –  I call it the Las Vegas Louvre.”

His path to success hasn’t always been easy. He grew up poor, had many highs and lows in his various careers, but the darkest time in his life was in 2006, when he lost his 16-year-old daughter Paige to brain cancer. What helped him get through it was turning his grief into philanthropy. He started the Paige Godard Foundation and works closely with St. Jude Children’s Hospital, Make a Wish, and other cancer organizations.

“At 3:00 in the morning, when I’m thinking about the things I’ve done and things that I still want to do, it’s what I’ve done as a human being to make the world a better place that really matters, not selling a painting for a million dollars. I’ve done a lot of philanthropy and those are the things I’m going to remember when I’m 92 and on my deathbed.”

Michael says he’s just an ordinary guy who happens to draw and paint. “I might have just sold a painting for some astronomical amount the day before, but when I get home, my wife still wants me to pick up my dirty socks.”

He credits LeeAnn for not only keeping him grounded, but also for keeping him on schedule. “After I met her, I started showing up to art shows on time. The first time I arrived at the scheduled time, no one was there. I thought my career was over! But my fans were used to me arriving late, so in they came about an hour later.”

The things he says make him happy right now are his wife, his dog, date nights, becoming a grandfather, and spending time with his children. “At the end of the day, I’m just doing my doodles and trying to stay out of trouble with my wife.”

In New Jersey, his art can be seen at the Wentworth Gallery in Short Hills. “Shows at the Wentworth are some of the most fun and exciting ones we do,” says Michael.

Follow Michael on Twitter @officialgodard, on Facebook at officialgodard and on Instagram @Godardscrazylife.

Written for Chatham & Short Hills Lifestyle magazine in NJ.

Scotch Plains Rescue Squad Annual Pancake Breakfast is Back!

The much anticipated Scotch Plains Rescue Squad’s 12th annual Pancake Breakfast will take place on Sunday, April 3, 2022, from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. at its building located at 1916 Bartle Avenue. This event is hosted by the Scotch Plains Rescue Squad Auxiliary, which raises funds for the all-volunteer squad. 

All-you-can-eat pancakes, coffee and sausages will be offered for just a $5.00 per person entry fee, (children 5 and under eat free). There will also be a raffle for baskets, which are filled with gifts and goodies donated by the community and area businesses.

It’s clear by the number of people who attend that it’s something the community looks forward to every year. So, come out with your family and friends and enjoy a hearty, delicious breakfast along with good conversation.  It’s a nice way to spend a Sunday morning. And for those with mobility issues, downstairs dining will be available.

The Scotch Plains Rescue Squad Auxiliary meets once a month, and its “grass roots” function is to assist the Squad in many capacities – from holding fundraisers and providing meals during crises to performing outreach to squad and fellow auxiliary members. Members also attend town functions, such as fairs, concerts and holiday events, in order to connect with the community and promote Squad interest.

If anyone is interested in becoming a member of the Auxiliary, stop by the Squad building one evening to pick up an application, or go to https://www.scotchplainsrescuesquad.com/the-auxiliary/.

Contributing Author:  Susan Baldani, a life member of the Scotch Plains Rescue Squad.

A Song of Hope

Suicide education, prevention and support

By Sue Baldani

Kevin Urso was a caring, intelligent and sensitive young man who loved people and had a special connection with animals. He found joy in making others feel special and making them laugh. Unfortunately, Kevin also suffered from a deep depression that eventually caused him to take his life at the age of 41.

“We knew that Kevin dealt with some depression,” says his mother, Gail Urso. “He had been diagnosed later in life with depression, but looking back, I think Kevin probably dealt with depression his whole life, but we never had that diagnosis. We had taken him to see some counselors when he was young, but no one ever suggested that he suffered from depression.”

After a visit to Florida to see their son in January of 2013, she and her husband John thought that he was doing better than ever. He was happy, and they had a great time together. “When Kevin died in March, we were devastated beyond belief, but also shocked, because we had not thought that suicide was a possibility.”

They found a note he had written in November or December in which he clearly decided to end his life, so they found out afterwards his happiness was due to relief. “If someone has seemed sad and depressed and very down, and all of sudden they’re very upbeat and seem all better, or if they start giving away their favorite things, those are signs you have to pay attention to,” she says. “But you wouldn’t know that if someone didn’t tell you.” There were other signs as well, such as a dramatic weight loss, that was blamed on gluten intolerance.

She adds, “One important thing to know is that people who are dealing with suicidal ideation keep it to themselves. They don’t want to be a burden to other people, which is something we learned early on from Dr. Thomas Joiner, an expert in suicidology. Burdensomeness is one of the common denominators among people who take their lives or attempt suicide. Most of us who have lost someone to suicide just want to say, ‘Why didn’t you tell us that you were hurting this badly?’, but they didn’t want us to suffer too.”

Another things that’s critical, she explains, is that it’s not only okay, but a good idea, to ask someone if they’re thinking about suicide. “For years, people thought by asking they would put ideas in the person’s head, but that’s absolutely incorrect. Chances are if you’re concerned enough about the person to have that go through your mind, that person has already thought about it. Instead, to ask is very freeing for them because they can talk about it instead of keeping it a secret. It can open a conversation and that person can then be helped.

“We didn’t know that suicide was a possibility for our son, and we knew that there must be a lot of other people like us. We’re well-educated and informed people, and we didn’t know. Out of our grief, we decided that one thing we could do was maybe help prevent other suicides.”

She and John founded Kevin’s Song in 2013, which obtained its 501(c)(3) status in 2014. The name was chosen because Kevin loved music and had a great voice.

“We began to learn about the different organizations that exist to deal with suicide, such as the American Association of Suicidology, which has been around for over 50 years. We had never heard of it and it’s a national organization. And there were other local organizations as well.”

One of Kevin’s Song’s goals is to educate others about suicide. The second is to bring together all of these organizations that are working on suicide prevention. The third is to support other people who have lost someone to suicide.

After forming a board of directors, they began to raise money to hold annual conferences which would bring people together to share information and educate the public. This past January 27, 28, and 29, they held their 6th annual conference. As in 2021, this one was virtual.  

“Another goal was to have a website that would be a resource for people, and to make a film, so over the next couple of years, we accomplished those goals as well,” says Gail. “We’ve been fortunate to have been introduced to Keith Famie, a well-known producer and filmmaker who was on Survivor and was also a famous chef. About 15 years ago, he decided to devote his time and talent to film making and has done a whole series of documentaries on very important causes. He did a film called ‘Death is Not the Answer,’ available through our website, and it was the first of many films that Kevin’s Song has produced.”

Gail is thankful for the tremendous support from the community. The Children’s Foundation, the Dolores and Paul Lavins Foundation, and the Joseph J. Lawrencelle Memorial Foundation are just a few of the organizations that have made the conferences possible. “We try to get as many sponsors as possible so we can keep the ticket prices as low as possible,” she says. “We just recently received a $50,000 grant from the Flinn Foundation, so we know there is clearly a need for what we started back in 2013 and 2014.”

Even though they have many wonderful sponsors, they are always looking for more. While the conference for 2022 has already taken place, they need support for future conferences.

Main attendees, she says, are mental health professionals, educators, medical practitioners, clergy, first responders and many people who have lost someone to suicide. In 2021, over 400 people attended.

“We offer support for people who have lost someone to suicide,” says Gail. “A lot of people who attend our conferences have lost someone and they want to learn more about it and to interact with others who have experienced the same loss. It’s a healing process.”

Detroit Public Television, she adds, has brought Kevin’s Song a lot of exposure and is now producing the conferences. “Also, the media attention we have received from various local channels and radio has all been great at drawing attention to the problem. We have reached a lot of mental health professionals and educators around not only Metro Detroit, but from out of state too, which we feel is very important.”

Everyone who registers for the conference will also have access to a link that will take them to any part of the conference they want to visit. There is also an effort underway to add highlights of past conferences to the website as well.

“We have connected organizations and experts in a way that has been very meaningful,” she says. “I have watched relationships develop around the country that we know we have been responsible for between people who have met at our conferences and are now doing projects together, so we are thrilled.”

Kevin’s Song was actually instrumental in the creation of another 501(c)(3) nonprofit called With One Voice. “It came about because as we were working on the issues and meeting with other organizations across the state who were doing similar things, it occurred to us that in order to accomplish more of our goals, it might be much more effective if we had all of these people working together,” says Gail. “With One Voice is statewide and is going to accomplish wonderful things.”

Kevin’s Song is always looking for donations, which can be made on its website, as well as volunteers to assist with its mission. “We are always appreciative of volunteers for our various committees, and those who want to give their talent and time to Kevin’s Song,” she says.

To find out more, go to https://kevinssong.org/.  

Written for Grosse Pointe Lifestyle magazine in Michigan.

Rocking their Faith

A multigeneration band sharing stories from their hearts

By Sue Baldani

It’s said that music soothes our soul. It also brings us joy and has the ability to evoke strong feelings, whether listened to alone, or in a crowd of people. Without music, our lives would be less magical.

The contemporary Christian band, We the Kingdom, brings us this magic not only through its sound, but also through its meaningful, uplifting and sometimes brutally honest lyrics. Every song tells a story.

Based out of Nashville, four of the five band members are family and include Ed Cash, his daughter Franni, son Martin, Ed’s brother Scott, and good friend Andrew Bergthold. Although Ed and Scott set out to be musicians early in life, they had to put their dreams, and tours, on hold to be there for their growing families. They stayed active in the music business and had great success behind the scenes as both songwriters and producers, and they became deeply involved in playing music at Young Life camps. These camps allow young people to get away, have fun, and strengthen their Christian faith.

We the Kingdom came together quite unexpectedly. While at a Young Life camp in Georgia in 2017, and while dealing with some major issues of their own, the members came together one night to write a song for the campers.

“We thought, ‘What would the Lord tell these kids?,’ and it was almost as if the Lord was talking to us in that moment,” says Andrew. “We ended up writing the song Dancing on the Waves in about 30 minutes and it was so good that we just started writing more. We then we realized that there was a band here.”

From there, things happened fast. “We wrote the song in 2017, and then we got serious in 2018, and then we got signed to our record label in 2019,” says Franni.

Soon after, the band released the single, Holy Water, in 2019 and it hit number two on the Billboard Hot Christian Songs chart. In October 2019, they released their first EP, Live at the Wheelhouse, which reached the Top Three on Billboard’s Top Christian Albums chart. Then in 2020, their second EP, Live Acoustic Sessions, was released, followed by their full-length album Holy Water, which debuted at number four on the Billboard’s Top Christian Albums chart and earned them a  Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Christian Music Album.

This past October, We the Kingdom released their Christmas album, A Family Christmas, which contains some beloved classics with the band’s own unique spin. There are five songs in total and one song has two versions.

While categorized as Christian, the music actually encompasses the sound and style of rock, soul, country, folk and pop. Because of this, it appeals to a very diverse crowd. The group also uses their music not just to entertain and connect with others, but to find peace and serenity within each other. “It’s almost like five different artists came together and God used the five of us to mesh and heal each of our five individual stories and to fulfill the same dream that we all had to be an artist,” says Martin.

“It’s more about writing songs that speak the universal language of the world and I used to think that Christian music was sometimes so specific to one thing that it kind of ruled out everyone else who didn’t understand what was going on,” says Martin. “But every once in a while, songs come out that become the soundtrack to people’s lives and they are bigger than their actual genre. They offer hope to people that is so widespread and it kind of grabs almost everybody. But it’s also written from a specific place in that writer’s heart that it feels like either you wrote it yourself or it was written for you. It’s appealing to everyone musically, sonically, lyrically.”

“We didn’t set out to make Christian music, we set out to tell our story and our story involves Jesus,” says Scott. “That’s why we write the songs we do. It’s not like we had chosen some genre, we’re just trying to be who we are and our identity comes from our faith. And we want to unpack that in a vulnerable and honest way.”

Adds Franni, “There’s something  really comforting about having the freedom of being able to sing out about Jesus through our music to combine the power of his name with music. It’s just been an unstoppable force and we’re really grateful to be making that kind of music.”

We the Kingdom has been busy touring all over the country, and next year they expected to be even busier. “We’re doing a lot of touring, but we’re doing at least one if not two headline tours which will be so fun,” says Scott. “We love crafting a night that hopefully every moment honors the fact that somebody is willing to be there and give us their time, so we want every second to count.”

Ed and Scott feel blessed to be living their dreams again, and being able to do it with family and a great friend makes it even more special.

“I just want people to keep digging,” says Scott. “Figure out who you are. I think we’re so focused on what we do that we miss out on who we are. That’s all that really matters.”

For tour dates, more information on the band, and to listen to some amazing music, check out their website at http://www.wethekingdom.com/, and on Facebook and Instagram. “We really love to connect with people,” says Martin. “What touches our heart is people. We love music, but we also love doing it knowing that it matters for something.”

Written for Brentwood Lifestyle magazine in TN.