by Michelle Hoffman
Spreading the word about the role of mental health in healing the body is a passion of Metropolitan Symphony cellist Ashley Bongard. And for her, music fosters that healing process. Embracing this cause led to this 16-year-old from Brookfield to be selected as a Children’s Miracle Network (CMN) National Champion, one of only ten kids in the U.S. selected for this advocacy role to help fund children’s health needs.
A long-time patient at Children’s Wisconsin, Ashley has visited a long list of specialty clinics, dealing with a variety of chronic medical conditions since birth. She sometimes has difficulty functioning and says that it isn’t uncommon for her to miss several days of school in any given week. And while that is her normal, it still causes her stress and anxiety to be away from school, fall behind in schoolwork, and then scramble to catch up when she returns.
Armed with first-hand experience of how difficult it is to manage the logistics of multiple doctor appointments, at just 12 years old, she spoke at the Wisconsin State Capitol on the importance of telehealth. She urged her state representative to support modernizing Wisconsin’s telehealth laws so that these appointments would be covered by Medicaid (at this time, in 2019, only in-person medical appointments were covered). She discussed how the quality of life for kids with health issues could be improved if telehealth appointments were more common—less time running across the metro area to get to an appointment, and more time in school and doing the things they love.
This experience led to Children’s Wisconsin approaching Ashley to share her story and inviting her to be a CMN Statewide Champion in 2019. At first, her mother Barbara was reluctant. “I felt Ashley was in too vulnerable a position to be so open on her health issues, and I was feeling vulnerable, too,” Barbara admitted. But Ashley immediately jumped at the chance. “She said, ‘what a great opportunity to share with other kids and parents and to help empower them.’”
Raising awareness is part of Ashley’s role as an advocate. “I’m trying to spread the message that if your mind isn’t in a place to heal, your body can’t either.” She wants not only kids to hear that message, but their parents, too. “You have to take care of ALL parts of yourself, not just the physical. You can get really caught up in trying to fix the physical pain, but it’s so important to have a holistic approach.”
Ashley’s interest in music was sparked early. When she was five years old, Barbara took her to an outdoor concert at the Marcus Performing Arts Center. She pointed to the stage, exclaiming, “Mom, I want to be THERE!” (The concert turned out to be a MYSO performance.) Barbara told Ashley, “well, in order to do that, you have to play an instrument. And after that, you have to practice. A LOT.” Ashley determinedly replied, “I’m going to do it.”
A year later, the sound of the cello drew her in. She was hooked.
When Ashley was in fourth grade, she recalls one of her doctors wanted her to drop her extra-curricular activities—ballet, volleyball, and music—to focus on her health and reduce her stress levels. Her mom recounted her pleading, “Mom, they can take everything from me, but not my cello…please not my cello!” They made an exception for Ashley’s cello lessons, and eventually, gave her the go-ahead to audition for MYSO. She has been playing in MYSO’s orchestras for six years. In addition, she enjoys singing—another therapeutic musical experience for her—and recently auditioned into the top choir at school as a soprano.
“When you’re struggling with your health, it’s important to find something else to focus on. And for me that has been music, specifically cello. It’s a way to express my emotions and a great way to distract me from pain. I don’t have to think about anything else. Of course, it’s also really fun, and I’ve made some of my closest friends through MYSO. I look forward to it, and it gives me a reason to push through what I’m going through. It’s been so helpful for my mental and emotional well-being.”
Ashley says when she’s playing alone, she can connect more easily to her own emotions. She called it “connecting to myself.” And playing in a group is just as important to her. “Having people around you who like the same thing…you have something in common and it connects us…it’s an entirely different emotional experience to make music with others.”
Since she became a Children’s Miracle Network National Champion in January 2023, Ashley has already been able to reach many with her message. She was recently interviewed on Telemundo Wisconsin (Ashley is bilingual) and got to speak and play cello at a session of a Children’s Hospitals Week conference before an audience of 1,100 on April 6, in Orlando, FL. And on April 27, Ashley told her story to the crowd at MYSO’s annual fundraising event, Pathways to Success.
Whoever she gets to speak to—and however large or small the group—Ashley never fails to mention that music—and MYSO—have been a major part of her healing journey.
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