The Power of Music and the VRQ

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Alex Watson, a resident of the Veterans Restoration Quarters, shared with us the path he has been on as he moves from homelessness to hopefulness and stability, including the support and strength he has found at the VRQ. 

I have always been able to find refuge and restoration in music. It's my therapy. There is safety and freedom from discrimination in the arts. This is where I find peace. My name is Alex Watson and I’m a concert pianist and resident of the Veteran's Restoration Quarters (VRQ).

A big part of my story since leaving the U.S. Navy in 2012 has been coping with depression. I had trouble adapting to find a career that suited my strengths and skills. I also struggled to develop a sense of comradery with my community that supported healthy living. I really felt like I had little purpose in life.

Since I was a child, I had a great interest in music. I began taking piano lessons at the age of 5 and continued to study, eventually graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill with a Bachelor’s Degree in Music. My next step was joining the U.S. Navy as a keyboard instrumentalist. I was stationed in San Diego and my job was to represent the military by performing music in authorized Navy Bands. We were the soft end of the sword but it wasn’t easy. A lot of my time in the Navy was spent on the roads touring southwestern states to encourage young people to consider enlisting in the military.

By performing at ceremonies on military bases, we were tasked to uplift the spirits of sailors returning home. I truly loved my job in the military but never knew why I was so unhappy all of the time.

In 2011 I was diagnosed with depression and thought it was something everyone experienced and I just had to get over it and move on. Since my diagnosis I never took the time to evaluate how my own self care was affecting my mental health. I resisted seeking help from mental health professionals. In 2016 I moved to Asheville to start a journey of recovery and restoration.

The VRQ was a perfect resource for me to take the time needed to heal and learn to cope with the symptoms of depression. I was able to work closely with health care providers at the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville to actively address my mental well-being and find ways to seek a career path that was rewarding to me.

Angela Catania and Whitney Gray were assigned to be my case workers at the VRQ. They took time to help me set goals such as financial planning and forming social networks to support mental health. I was provided the opportunity to gain additional employment training. But most importantly, I connected with other veterans who shared my story. As a former military service member, getting along with people from all walks of life is not a new thing. I feel like the other residents are my family that I can count on for encouragement. I can't help but walk through the VRQ and be welcomed by a chorus of “Good morning, how have you been?” from fellow residents. Today I feel like a whole person and someone who is contributing greatly to society.

My restoration expanded beyond the walls of the VRQ when I entered the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival Competition in February 2017. I was able to find affirmation in my achievements as a piano performer by winning the first place Gold Medal for three solo piano divisions in the national competition. I have been invited to travel at the end of October to Buffalo, N.Y., through a grant and perform one of my winning piano pieces in a festival concert. This festival helps showcase how music and the arts can help veterans connect and cope with the challenges of everyday life after military service.

Although I had no job when I moved into the VRQ, I was able to gain meaningful employment as a piano instructor. After taking the A-B Tech Continuing Education Culinary Courses offered by Chef Eric Cox at the VRQ I was referred to a local restaurant in Asheville.

The support at the VRQ has helped me sustain these jobs and I am a part of an even greater network of altruism than what I could possibly do alone. The piano studio where I work provides scholarships to students who are unable to afford piano lessons. The instructors perform benefit concerts several times a year to raise money for these scholarships. Happy Jacks, the restaurant where I work, has its own charity called Kevi Bear Kids, which raises money to donate soccer balls to young people with needs in Ecuador. The owners, Kevin and Betty Lee, express that giving a soccer ball to a kid can help them be distracted from hunger and poverty. It feels incredibly rewarding to work for businesses that generously share resources with others. I'm proud to be a part of local organizations that help thousands of people each year.

Before I was able to help others, I had to help myself. The VRQ provided me with this important part in my restoration and now I’m able to give back. My goal is to host a solo piano holiday benefit concert to raise money for the ABCCM’s VRQ, veterans in need of transitional housing and employment skill training, and to support the recording of a sacred solo piano album. I’ve been blessed with a talent and training as a piano performer, now it’s time to use my skills to help others.

The benefit concert will be Saturday, December 2, 5pm at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in downtown Asheville. The suggested donation is $20. More info can be found online at www.AlexWatsonPiano.com.

I'm proud to be a veteran but equally honored to have the opportunity to share the peace I find in music with others. Music provides me with healing and as I continue to spread my roots in the Asheville music community I hope to show my appreciation for the resources for veterans and my family at the VRQ.

VRQ residents like Alex are working every day with our volunteers, churches and community partners to transform their lives. To learn more, volunteer or donate, go to www.abccm.org/veterans-restoration-quarters or call (828) 259-5300.