[INTERVIEW] Pegi Young on 30 Years of Bridge School Benefit Concerts: “This is my life’s work, and it has to survive.”

Pegi Young | Photo by Tom Bejgrowicz

As we’re winding down our twenty-minute chat over the phone, Pegi Young pauses and, calmly, gets to the heart of the matter.

“This is my life’s work, and it has to survive,” she tells me. “It’s too important, and it’s made a huge difference in so many people’s lives.”

Young is speaking about the Bridge School, an organization co-founded by Young herself. Its mission “is to ensure that individuals with severe speech and physical impairments achieve full participation in their communities through the use of augmentative & alternative means of communication and assistive technology applications and through the development, implementation and dissemination of innovative life-long educational strategies.”

This weekend is one of the School’s biggest fundraisers, and it’s a special one: the 30th Annual Bridge School Benefit Concert at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California.

The lineup, as usual, is terrific: Neil Young + Promise of the Real, Metallica, Roger Waters, Dave Matthews, Willie Nelson, My Morning Jacket, Norah Jones, Cage The Elephant, and Nils Lofgren will perform. All proceeds directly benefit the operations of The Bridge School.

Also, as usual, the benefit concert will be all acoustic, challenging bands like Metallica and My Morning Jacket to alter their normal set.

“We have made a couple of exceptions over the years,” Young admits. “We let John Lee Hooker play electric. We’re not going to tell John Lee Hooker he can’t play electric. (laughs) But very, very, very few (exceptions). Like Metallica, they come  — I think this will be their third time playing — and play acoustic, and they get it, you know? And they still put on a powerhouse show, as have so many others like Green Day, The Who, Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters — a lot of bands you just don’t see playing acoustic. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Also beautiful is the stage’s backdrop, which features students of the Bridge School sitting behind the musicians, enjoying the show.

“It’s a wonderful experience,” Young says. “Very heartwarming to have the kids on the stage — a constant reminder of why you’re there. Why the audience is there, why the musicians are there — they are the stars of the show, and everybody gets that.”

Here’s the rest of my conversation with Pegi Young.

So, 30 years of Bridge School Benefit Concerts. How does it feel?

I don’t want to say old, but certainly older than the 30-whatever-year-old that I was when this whole thing got started. But, you know, I look at it with a great deal of satisfaction. It’s kind of amazing that the school has not only sustained itself for all these years by way of the concert, of course, but how it’s grown and evolved.

We started with the four parent-placed kids, very humbled beginnings, and it has just grown to have a global impact. Obviously, looking at the need for the endowment, to keep the school going, that’s been the big focus for us, and it has been for some time. And as time marches on, it’s becoming more of a real need that needs our attention.

Tell me more about the endowment. What’s your approach to seeing that succeeding?

Well, it’s sort of a multi-pronged approach, actually, just looking straight ahead at the concert coming up, there’s an opportunity for  people to participate in the endowment campaign. You can go to the Bridge web site and look at the VIP donor section.

There are also general ways of helping us — everything from putting us in your will to other alternatives, and certainly cash is always welcome, and we’ve done pretty well. And when I say cash, I mean cash at all levels. A big part of our donor pool is made up of fans of Neil (Young) in particular, but maybe some other artists as well, and those donations may be whatever — whatever they can afford. We’ve received two dollars in the mail. We value the fan base greatly, they’ve been constant supporters since the beginning, and I would never want them to feel that somehow what they can afford is not meaningful. We do have a lofty goal — we’re trying to raise around 40 million dollars — and there are a variety of ways for people to help support the endowment.

You mentioned the global impact. How have you seen that?

It’s been quite amazing. We have our international teacher-in-residence program, which right now I think we’re on our 12th year of running that program — and that is an application process and it’s a scholarship program. And a teacher professional from a developing country comes and works and lives alongside the Bridge School staff and students, and one of the criteria for them to come to Bridge and receive this scholarship is that they have a support system in place when they return. So that they can then begin to implement Bridge School methodologies and technologies when they return.

In fact, we just had a — I didn’t go, but it was up in Toronto — there was an international society for the augmentative and alternative communications community, and I believe at least eight of our teachers and residents were there. And they’re representing Poland and Singapore and Mexico and South Africa and India…South Korea. And when we do the reciprocal visit, and I must say I am using the royal “we” here, because all I see are pictures when the team returns, but we hold conferences and hold workshops and work with the teams to troubleshoot what issues they might be encountering when they return to their home countries. Certain areas are just more remote than others — they don’t have access to some of the benefits we have from being so close to Silicon Valley.

And of course our web site — it’s one of our most essential means of reaching out to the global community. We have the Building Bridges Camp, which is not restricted to students who have attended Bridge School, and (it’s there) for either when the kids are ready or when the parents are ready (laughs). Sometimes it’s a little of both. (laughing) And it’s also a training institute, so the professionals who come and attend with the camper, they are taught how to enable access to curriculum, and, really, enable participation. And we do it in a fun, campy environment; it’s really an opportunity for kids just to be kids. Our kids tend to go to school, go to therapy appointments, you know…it’s really important to have a balanced life, and we’re really aware of that.

What about some of the success stories? I am curious to hear about those.

Three or four of our students now have graduated from college, and I’ve been to every one of their graduations with huge pride of a mother hen for seeing success that these students have enjoyed — that once they have left Bridge, there is a continuum of success. One student graduated with a double degree, and she is going back to get her Master’s next fall. But she, April, has been coming back to the Bridge School and doing a mentoring program for our younger kids, which is really helpful. Because these younger kids can see a future. And April’s a terrific advocate. Always was. Since she came to the Bridge School at 7 or 8, we knew she was going to be a fearless leader — she just has that quality.

And then there are other kids who have followed more of a vocational path. For instance, our son, Ben, who is a very successful organic egg farmer. He’s been running the operation now, oh gosh, a good 10 years, if not longer. He goes down to the local Farmer’s Market every Saturday morning, sells his eggs, and they sell like hot cakes because they’re the best eggs in town. And I’m not just saying that (laughs). You know when you buy eggs in a grocery store, and even when you buy them from a good organic source, you notice the yolks are kind of pale? Ben’s eggs are nuclear orange. (laughs) Because they’re just so fresh, you know? Some of them have been laid that morning.

The typical profile of our kids is a diagnosis of cerebral palsy, so they do most often have pretty significant physical impairments, and they all have what we call complex communication needs, so they do rely on augmented communication to be generally understood by unfamiliar communication partners.

Pegi, I was at Wrigley Field in August for Pearl Jam, and they had Steve Gleason, who is in a wheelchair and uses augmented communication, on stage before they played “Inside Job.” He gave a heartfelt speech

Oh wow. Please send me that.

I will. Just wanted to mention it since Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam have been such an important part of the Bridge School Concerts over the years.

Eddie’s such a dear friend of the Bridge School. He’s gotten to know the kids over the years — well beyond, “hey, I’m here to play for the weekend,” and then go on about his business. He had kids, obviously, over the period of time he’s been playing. His eldest daughter is friends with one of our students — her family moved up to Washington state. It’s been neat to watch. You now, Dave Grohl, and Beck, and some of the other “young guys” when they started, now have families of their own, and their kids are friends with our kids.

The 30th Annual Bridge School Benefit Concert is this weekend, October 22 & October 23, 2016.

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