When Westport resident and multiple Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter Michael Bolton was 21, he had released three albums and become a father to his first daughter. Heady accomplishments, no doubt. Yet he says of a photo in which he’s holding an acoustic guitar and singing to his baby girl “In [the photo] I’m thinking, ‘She doesn’t know I can’t afford our rent.’ I was struggling financially to stay alive.”
Despite his albums for major record labels, which floundered and flopped despite his talent, despite his notorious coif, Michael struggled for years to gain traction in the music industry. Meanwhile, his family grew from one to three daughters. With paychecks cobbled together from gigs and voice lessons, he managed - barely - to forfend eviction.
It wasn’t until his oldest daughter turned 12, he 34, that his song “That's What Love Is All About” kick-started his rise to contemporary music history. He became the long-locked crooner of pop ballads for which a generation of romantics swoon.
Michael was often invited to parlay his fame into raising funds for causes such as juvenile diabetes and MS. One evening he took a mental “snapshot” of his surroundings: he was performing with Ray Charles and Whitney Houston, seated with Presidents Ford and Reagan. It was in that moment he realized he had the notoriety and fame to raise money not only for his friends’ charities, but also for his personal altruistic objectives.
In 1993 he created Michael Bolton Charities (MBC) with a simple personal mission: alleviate poverty to avoid homelessness. Love may be blind, but the sting of destitution and fear of living on the streets are not. We, as consumers of pop-culture fairytales, are conditioned to glamorize the scratching and scrapping of embryonic rock stars. But, as Michael knows too well, nothing is glamorous when it compromises the well-being of children.
He hired Jackie Smaga as executive director, who continues working with him today. Jackie researched homeless shelters to determine which facilities MBC should fund. Her research uncovered a heartbreaking number of women and children who were victims of domestic abuse.
Michael, with three daughters and raised by a single mother, was shocked. “I wasn’t remotely aware of the violence women and children were experiencing at home. An irony never far from my conscience: when we go home we shut the door to our sanctuary and we’re safe. When those who experience domestic violence shut the door, they’re in the most dangerous place.”
Further, through a collaborative study they learned that many single mothers in the shelters are cognitively-impaired. Shelter workers at that time weren’t universally aware of, or addressing, the mental incapacitation of the chronically homeless. These women could not manage a family without hours of specialized training from a family advocate; removing them from the relative protection of a shelter would put them at heightened risk of danger.
Equipped with this information, several goals for MBC emerged: help women and kids at risk, support family advocates, and provide funding to work with these families until they learn to be independent.
Today, MBC has raised over $10 million and funded nearly l00 charities and organizations, including:
- Columbus House/Sojourner’s House: A home for women suffering from violence, abuse, AIDS and cognitive limitations. Trained staff offers psychiatric counseling, community team-building and other services to help them independently live with their families. Says a former resident, “Everything I gained from the classes, meetings, and even doing the chores helped me to reclaim control over my life.”
- Mt. Sinai Sexual Assault & Victims Intervention Program: Provides case management, therapy, education, and other services to help sexually exploited or trafficked youth.
- New Haven Family Justice Center (FJC): A “one-stop shopping center” modeled after a center in Brooklyn. According to Jackie, “If a woman needs help she can walk in the door and get all the help she needs right there.” Why is it important? “It takes a lot of guts for a woman to walk in the door in the first place. If she gets shoved around she may give up.”
- Violence Against Women Act (VAWA): Michael has traveled to DC three times and testified before Congress in support of the landmark VAWA to maintain necessary legal and safety measures for women victims of abuse and violence. As well, he encourages men to step up and speak out against abuses toward the women in their lives.
Of each project, Jackie insists, “Michael’s commitment is incredible, his passion is incredible. He’s deeply involved in every decision made, he doesn’t just lend his name."
One of these decisions was creating a music therapy program for kids, titled “Beyond Trauma: Healing Through Music (BT)”. Growing up in New Haven, Michael’s interest in music and maintaining a healthy voice helped him avert drugs and other destructive behaviors that hurt a number of his peers. “Music was a saving grace. The distractions and the dangers fall away because your love for music is so strong,” he explains. Perhaps the saving grace of music could help children of domestic abuse?
Kids can be difficult to reach, especially those who have witnessed or are victims of violence. Children from abusive homes are inherently distrustful of adults and have low esteem, making a relationship with a “talk” therapist challenging.
With music, however, “we release oxytocin, which is the hormone that makes us feel trust and connectedness with each other,” explains MBC music therapist Courtney Biddle, MMT, MT-BC.
"All the aspects of music therapy, whether it's learning an instrument, discussing a meaningful lyric, writing a song/rap, creating beats, or playing improvised music, help students to access and often transform their emotions. Playing music is often joyful and can dramatically shift a student's mood. Having the courage to create music in the moment helps students connect with others as well as learn to trust themselves more,” BT Director Cyd Slotoroff, MT-BC explains
Further, "The rhythmic aspect of playing music can help students increase their internal organization"
Success stories abound: a 7th grader tells Courtney, “The whole rest of the school feels like Hell, but this room (music therapy room) feels like Heaven.” A high-schooler in an exceptionally difficult situation tells Cyd how music “reminds me how human I am; makes me an optimist.” With music, says Cyd, “They become empowered and learn to trust themselves more.”
Now we’re on the cusp of a new decade and MBC is moving firmly into the future. Today, MBC is more relevant than ever. Quarantine has forced many women and children into untenable yet unavoidable situations. On Saturday, December 12 at 7 PM Michael is hosting Chords of Hope: A Quarantunes Virtual Special Event to raise awareness and funds for MBC.
This event is part of the extraordinary Richard and Demi Weitz Quarantunes initiative which has raised over $10 million for COVID-19 and social relief organizations during quarantine. The event will feature celebrities, musical performances, and notable honorees. Please visit ChordsOfHope.org for tickets and more information.
Beyond COVID-19 relief, Michael’s “overall big picture goals” are to increase the music program to reach more kids. “If I could, I would create Beyond Trauma 100-fold.”
MBC also plans to develop an in-school program, educating boys on the causes of domestic violence and how to control the emotional and psychological impulses that lead to abuse. He envisions including sports and other role models telling young men, “you can’t be proud of yourself if you’re violent.”
A year ago, Michael read a poem written by a student in the program. The poem was about being broken. But it ended with Now I want to live. “We all have relative hardships,” Michael says, “When are we in the middle of the afternoon writing down, ‘Now I want to live’?”
You may not have known about Michael Bolton Charities. If you did know, you may not have known much about it. Here’s what else you may not know about Michael Bolton: “I am a hopeless romantic and at the same time I’ve always been a comic. There’s not a principal in elementary school who couldn’t throw me out.”
For further evidence, watch his Jack Sparrow video (collaboration with The Lonely Island - Youtube.com/watch?v=GI6CfKcMhjY). And check out “Michael Bolton’s Big Sexy Valentine’s Day Special” on Netflix (Netflix.com/watch/80151370?source=35). (Though wildly funny, do not let your kids watch them. Seriously.)
Also, two of his daughters own retail stores - and who doesn’t love to shop? Isa owns Loved Boutique in Branford and Taryn owns Around the Rosy, for children, in Westport.