Melanie Barrier went into the Florida foster care system as a newborn. She lived in 20 foster homes before she was adopted at age 10.
Stability existed in only one realm: music. As a child traveling from family to family, Barrier took along her beloved songs of the 1970s.
As an adult, Barrier, 55, is using music to change the lives of foster and adopted children. Her organization, Music That Reclaims, serves kids here and across the country, taking them to concerts and musical theater complete with backstage tours, something Barrier remembers from her own childhood.
“You’re exposed to these people who are famous and you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, there’s a life out there after foster care.’”
‘The feeling of drowning’
Barrier, who works in the IT field, described her childhood almost as a therapist might, referring to a quiz that accesses abuse and neglect.
“It’s probably safe to say that my adverse child experience score, my ACE score, was pretty much off the charts,” Barrier said.
One of her lowest points was at 7 when a foster family she’d lived with for a year gave up on her. The couple put her on a plane back to a group home in Florida — by herself — in the middle of the night.
“It would be very similar to the feeling of drowning,” she said. “Just complete chaos and confusion.”
She said what saved her was the music of the Carpenters and other popular performers of the day, emanating from the transistor radio she took from one place to another.
“Your parents kept changing, your siblings kept changing, your pets, your churches, your schools, everything changed every couple of months,” Barrier said. “But I had this little red radio and that little red radio delivered the music. And that became my constant companion.”
When Barrier was 9, an anonymous donor took her and a dozen other children in the group home to hear a rock band called Firefall (“Brandy, you’re a fine girl … ”). She’ll never forget going backstage to meet the musicians.
Barrier now offers the same experience to kids in foster care or who’ve been adopted after living tumultuous environments. Her 1-year-old organization has taken dozens of St. Louis children and their families to musicals at the Fox Theatre and The Muny.
Through the organization, Nancy Birch of O'Fallon, Missouri, brought her 12-year-old foster son to The Muny’s “The Little Mermaid,” a year after the death of the child’s mother.
“He had this shine in his eye, which he usually does not have,” Birch said. “He had never been to anything like that and he thoroughly enjoyed it. He couldn’t get that smile off his face.”
Hope and possibility ‘when you least expect them’
Barrier has a special connection with Celtic singer Loreena McKennitt. She’s taken dozens of children around the country to hear the musician, including 12-year-old Lili Cooley of west St. Louis County. Lili and her mom saw McKennitt through the organization last year.
Music is a big part of Lili’s life. It helps soothe the effects of being left alone, as a toddler, in front of the TV while her birth mother, who was addicted to drugs, went out for hours.
The experience left Lili with serious anger issues, according to her adoptive mother Season Cooley.
“Rage, just full-on rage and screaming,” Cooley said. “[I have gotten] calls from school, you know, having to pick her up because she’d hit another child.”
“I have a hard time controlling my anger and my emotions,” Lili said. “So I tend to sometimes cry a lot and I’ll say stuff like, ‘I hate you.’ I tend to regret what I say and I want to take it all back.”
Lili felt important when she met McKennitt after the concert. She said the singer simply encouraged her to be herself.
“Some people, they try to get you to talk a lot but she was just like, ‘If you don’t want to talk, you don’t have to,” Lili said. “You know, be shy if you want.”
McKennitt said she’s happy to provide any encouragement she can. She said she’s aware these children may have feelings of low self-esteem.
“They’re always having to exist at the generosity of others,” McKennitt said. “I try to highlight the point that sometimes avenues of hope and possibility occur when you least expect them.”
Barrier plans to keep following McKennitt’s national tour and also wants to expand Music That Reclaims locally with a full-time music therapist for foster and adopted children in St. Louis. The organization has paid for music therapy for 50 children this past year.
Barrier said she knows the exposure to music in all forms is helpful to kids of all ages. She points to the turnaround of a teenage boy who was initially bored by the idea of attending a McKennitt concert. But afterward, surrounded by seven younger foster siblings, the youth approached the balladeer.
“He was so moved by the experience,” Barrier said. “He handed her his poster to sign and said, ‘Please keep doing what you’re doing.’”
Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL