How do parents manage to go on after the utterly unexpected suicide of a beloved child? If you’re Elise Gold and Mathew Swerdloff of New Paltz, you start a foundation in your late daughter’s name, with a mission that was close to her heart. You work closely with other local parents to help create a safer, more supportive community for young people who might be concealing their struggles from the adult world. And if you have lots of musicians in your social circle, you organize a concert to celebrate your daughter’s life and legacy.
The latter effort will bear fruit on Sunday, April 17, 1 p.m., at the Julien J. Studley Theatre in the Old Main Building on the SUNY New Paltz campus. The concert, titled “The Candle and the Heart,” is a benefit for the Maya Gold Foundation, and features a stellar lineup of Hudson Valley-based musicians. The headliners will be three-time Grammy-winning singer/songwriter/storyteller Tom Chapin and renowned avant-garde keyboardist John Medeski of Medeski, Martin & Wood. Also on the program will be local folkie faves Kim and Reggie Harris and Bill & Livia Vanaver with the Vanaver Youth Dance Company. The Paul Green Rock Academy Showband will feature young performers, including “some of Maya’s peers,” according to Gold.
Attendees will also have the opportunity to discover a major local talent on the rise: jazz chanteuse Joanna Teters, who first discovered her passion for music while playing in the New Paltz Middle School band under the baton of now-retired band director Charles Seymour. Now in her 20s, Teters went on to attend Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music and has performed at Lincoln Center. Pairing her with Medeski on the program could prove a moment to remember.
The concert will be emceed by Jonathan Kligler, a family friend and the rabbi of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, whose moving eulogy for Maya and plea for a kinder world for her peers went viral on social media. The concert was originally his idea. Shortly after Maya’s death at the age of 15 in October 2015, “His musical friends came together and said, ‘Let’s do some music,’” says Gold.
“Everybody said ‘Yes,’ and that’s a beautiful thing,” says Kligler. “Given that Maya’s funeral was at the Studley Theatre, having this concert coming together there seemed to be the best way of moving the energy forward — of continuing the process together of taking this tragedy and using it to change the way we support teens in this community.” “Matt and Elise have a knack for picking a great team. It’s remarkable how easy things are coming together,” adds architect Rick Alfandre, another family friend who hosted the committee meetings to organize next Sunday’s event. “It’s going to be a great concert!”
Besides great performances and a sense of community solidarity, “The Candle and the Heart” will be the Maya Gold Foundation’s first major fundraiser, with proceeds to be devoted to a terrific cause that reflects the deceased teen’s strong sense of compassion and her ambition to work with orphans in Nepal someday. The specific beneficiaries this time will be two projects of the Nepal Youth Foundation: one that provides food, shelter, clothing and education for orphans in that Himalayan country and another focused on stopping human trafficking there.
“There’s one province in Nepal where young women have traditionally been sold into indentured servitude for life and get no education. It’s called kamlaris,” Gold explains. “The practice has mostly stopped,” Swerdloff adds, “but the organization is working to get the ones that are in, out — helping them become reintegrated into society by providing them with education, social skills and jobs.”
It’s a sobering thought to realize that human slavery still happens in many places in the modern world — and ending it seems like the sort of movement for social change that might appeal to American teens who feel adrift and need something more than dating, drugs and devices to engage their hearts and minds. Reaching such young people and giving them outlets for their concerns and constructive ways to spend their energies is the other prong of the Maya Gold Foundation’s mission, and some of the future events already being organized by Gold, Swerdloff and members of the Foundation’s volunteer committees will focus on themes of adult/adolescent communication.
Coming up on May 19 at 7 p.m., a presentation by Michael Nerney titled “Welcome to the Adolescent Brain: A Talk for Parents and Teens” will be hosted by New Paltz High School. Another forum, on “Emotional Intelligence,” will be presented in the autumn, along with another benefit concert, this time starring Natalie Merchant.
“The Candle and the Heart” has already attracted sponsorships from many local businesses as well as “numerous generous individuals.” As of presstime, the business and organizational sponsors included Bread Alone Bakery, the Institute for Mindful Living, Treeo Design, Handmade and More, the Health and Nutrition Center, Kol Hai, the Rosendale Theatre, Jim DeMaio Insurance, Alfandre Architecture, Performance Sports and Wellness, the New Paltz United Teachers, the New Paltz Times, PDQ Printing and Rock and Snow. If you’re interested in becoming a sponsor, or in volunteering to help with future Maya Gold Foundation endeavors, visit the website at www.mayagoldfoundation.org or the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/mayagoldfoundation.
The concert begins at 1 p.m. on April 17; allow ample time to find parking near Old Main. Admission is by donation, with $20 the suggested ticket price for adults and $10 for youth. Tickets will be sold at the door if still available, but as of presstime “Close to half of the tickets have been sold,” according to Swerdloff. Get yours in advance at https://candleheart.brownpapertickets.com. And don’t forget to wear blue to the concert: Maya’s favorite color. “It might be nice to see an ocean of blue,” says Gold. “It’s not a memorial concert; it’s an uplifting and shifting of energy.”
Parenting an addicted child
Meet the parents. Two hardworking local people, educated, community-minded, raising a family. They have two children, an older boy, a younger daughter. As a young teen, the boy got involved with an older girl and was lured from the home much of the time. They began using hard drugs. Couple of years on, the older girl was not around any more, but the drugs were, all through what should have been the high-school years. Now he’s almost 20.
“We’ve had four-and-a-half years of what?” asks Mom. “It’s agony, it’s heartbreak, it’s exhaustion. It’s just running around knocking on people’s doors at 7 a.m. looking for your kid, and they send you to someone else’s house and someone else’s, and you find out your kid is in Albany …”
“With four other kids … during school hours …,” adds Dad.
“And doing who knows what,” says Mom. “Doing drugs, selling drugs, buying drugs. Who knows what?”
“We made it as difficult, as brutally painful for him to be able to do this,” says Dad. “The parents that hide this … There’s plenty of parents that you see at the store, and it’s, ‘Hey, how’s it goin’.’ Well, other than that my kid is shooting heroin, it’s okay …”
The really dangerous thing that people won’t say, according to Dad, is “Well, it’s not that my kid is doing heroin, it’s that my kid is probably enticing your kid into doing heroin…”
Mom and Dad let me know that the Kid is finally doing better. “Today, he’s fine. He checked in with me today, he’s with his friends,” says Dad. After many legal battles, a bench warrant had put the kid in jail for a couple of months, something that the parents reluctantly came to realize was necessary.
It “took four kids dead for this to even remotely turn around,” says Dad.
“According to him, he knows of twelve kids, peers [northern Ulster County kids who have died from overdoses.] The last one [Ryan Molnar] hit him probably the hardest,” says Mom.