It starts, as so many things do, with an introduction.
Jan Afonso walks into a patient’s room in the Angela Hospice Care Center, and no matter the patient’s state, she tells them her name, and that she’s there to play the harp for them.
Afonso has done this weekly as an Angela Hospice volunteer since May 9, 2018 – a date she has saved in her phone’s calendar – creating music that floats out of the patients’ rooms into the usually quiet space.
In those Care Center rooms Afonso has shared countless memories with patients and their families, the most memorable being when a patient begins to sing along with whatever Afonso is playing.
Sometimes they start to sing to the surprise of everyone else in the room, like when a patient started singing along in Gaelic to the song Afonso was playing – a language even her daughter didn’t know she knew.
“It was so much fun for her to surprise her daughter at that point. She had one more trick up her sleeve,” Afonso said, remembering it fondly.
Each time she’s at the Care Center isn’t just a time to volunteer, but it’s a four-hour meditation for her. Playing makes her slow down as she begins to practice, going from the hustle and bustle outside the Angela Hospice walls to something much more serene.
It’s a day well spent where Afonso says she receives so much more than she could possibly give. To be able to be a part of someone’s final journey is something she would never take for granted.
“It’s my favorite day of the week,” she said.
“Whenever you volunteer, you get paid back in spades,” Afonso said.
There are many volunteers who decide to start volunteering after a loved one used Angela Hospice for their care; or after retiring from a profession spent in the medical field, nurses and aides wanting to still use their skills in a different setting.
Afonso is neither of those things.
She retired from the University of Michigan, where she was a study abroad administrator, and while she’s lost loved ones, none of them were in hospice, let alone Angela Hospice.
But she had heard such great things about Angela Hospice. She was a retiree and knew she wanted to spend time volunteering. So, one day, in 2017, she walked inside the Angela Hospice Care Center and asked to speak to someone about volunteering. In a rather serendipitous moment, Teri Schmitchen, Angela Hospice Director of Integrative Therapies & Volunteers Services, happened to be available to meet with her at the time.
“It was great that she was there… because when you finally build up the courage to do something, sometimes, any little one thing kind of gets you off track, it could’ve been months before I even walked in again,” Afonso said. “But she was there, and I told her I was a harpist and wanted to find the right fit for my volunteer work. Then I asked if there was any chance they might be interested?”
They definitely were.
“She’s the embodiment of peace and grace,” Schmitchen said. “She comes with a quiet, gracious presence and shares her highly talented skills as a harpist… so that visitors can enjoy a deep sense of peace and relaxation.”
After completing her volunteer training Afonso went on to do two different mentoring experiences with fellow volunteers, one with a musician, another with someone who volunteered in the Care Center. She wanted to make sure she was prepared for anything that may come up while she played for a patient.
By the time she began playing in patients’ rooms on her own, Afonso was more than ready.
Afonso – who has played the harp since she was 10 after the Lyon & Healy Harp Company donated one to her elementary school in Tucson, Arizona – also plays at events for Angela Hospice, like the Tree of Life, and in the Great Room in the Care Center, something she hadn’t planned to originally do when she started her volunteer training. But then she watched someone play the piano at an afternoon tea held in the Care Center and it made her think that she could probably do something similar.
She does prefer the more intimate setting though.
“By the end of the [volunteer] training, I knew I wanted to be in the room,” Afonso said. “I knew that that was where I would say that I would be the most fulfilled, and that just seemed like the best fit.”
The fit has stuck, and going to Angela Hospice each week has become a form of going to church for her.
“It’s like going to church because it [Angela Hospice] acts like a church. It’s accepting people, regardless of their financial means, or their background, or religion, or lack of religion,” Afonso said.
It’s a place of peace and beauty, much like the music she plays.
Afonso could’ve picked any hospital, hospice, or place where people would have loved to hear someone play the harp for free, but she’s glad she choose Angela Hospice, her experience showing her that all she had heard before was true, it is a really wonderful and special place, one that she is constantly adding to.
“She ushers in peace for our patients, family members, and staff,” said Heather Dean, Angela Hospice Music Therapist.
And while Angela Hospice patients, their loved ones, and Angela Hospice staff get so much enjoyment out of her playing, Afonso gets a lot out of it too.
“Whenever you volunteer, you get paid back in spades,” she said.
Although Afonso’s time spent volunteering at Angela Hospice – which is close to her Livonia home – goes back less than a decade, she’s been a volunteer much longer than that, going back to her days as a student in Arizona.
In fact, her volunteering played a role in Afonso being able to expand her skills on the harp.
When she was in high school her teacher wanted her to learn how to play the pedal harp, something Afonso wasn’t able to commit to financially. So, her teacher told her parents if they put money towards renting a pedal harp, she would provide Afonso with free lessons.
“The reason she was giving me these lessons for free is because she saw that I was always volunteering with my heart, going into schools and nursing homes and things like that,” Afonso said. “That’s why she wanted to give me these lessons for free.”
Afonso has been paying it forward, much like her music teacher, ever sense, including her time volunteering at Angela Hospice, where she’s been able to reinvent herself as a harpist, exploring more genres of music than just the classical pieces she was trained in.
Playing at Angela Hospice also gives Afonso simply an excuse to play more, something that wasn’t always easy to do with kids and jobs and a full life. She’s had large gaps where she hasn’t played at all.
Thankfully, that is no longer the case.
“I’m so glad that it’s something I could some back to,” she said.
It seems no matter who she’s with or what she’s doing, Afonso is giving of her time, her talent, and occasionally, a tea cup.
When Afonso began volunteering at Angela Hospice, because her harp was so large – 55 pounds – she would warm up in a closet that stored tea cups, and each week, right at eye level, she would watch as cups rattled when she began to play, with one cup in particular catching her eye, covered with a harp and shamrock on it.
“I really believe in signs and on my very first day, in that closet, I noticed a tea cup sitting there… That was there every single time I went there,” Afonso said. “It reminded me yes, I’m meant to be here.”
Last year, Angela Hospice held a Tea Cup sale and Afonso assumed she would never see that tea cup again, wishing she had asked for it to be set aside for her. But then she took a look at the sale, and no one had purchased it yet, so, Afonso did.
She didn’t keep it though, Afonso gave it as a gift to the woman who introduced her to the Carbon Fiber Harp, a much smaller and more portable harp that she now brings to Angela Hospice when she plays, continuing to pay it forward on to others like she’s had it paid on to her.