By Jason Keil, December 2020 issue
Last spring, David Simmons was thrilled to perform in front of a sold-out crowd at the Phoenix Center for the Arts with his brother, the Academy Award-winning actor J.K. Simmons, for the benefit “Light Your Corner of the World.”
Also on the bill for the March 2, 2020 benefit were the students of The UBU Project, the non-profit David founded in 2017, performing music they had written and performed. Proceeds from the show went toward funding the organization’s mission “to end youth suicide, addiction, and bullying through arts integration.”
The UBU Project fulfills its mission by putting on “prevention residencies,” student-led songwriting and art exercises designed to address these difficult topics and find some hope, resilience, self-compassion, and empathy in their lives. David had several scheduled at Valley schools for several weeks.
Then you-know-what happened.
“That Friday, I got the email saying, ‘Due to coronavirus, we’re going to be shut down for a couple of weeks,’” recalls the 61-year-old Peoria resident. “That’s now turned into seven or eight months.”
And while other charitable and arts organizations are struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic, David is confident that The UBU Project, which became a non-profit in 2019, will be around when everyone makes it to the other side. And because he’s essentially the organization’s only staff member, overhead is extremely low, which means he can get by on the small donations that trickle in from time to time.
“I joke that I’m bald because I wear all the hats right now,” he says.
Also working with The UBU Project are eight board members and a professional advisory group that includes David’s siblings J.K. and Dr. Elizabeth Simmons-O’Neill, an English professor. Also included are professionals in the fields of childhood trauma and suicide prevention, including those with experience in working with LGTBQ youth, who assist David with the prevention residency curriculum.
According to David, The UBU Project’s residencies are something he’s been doing on and off for several decades. He just gave it a name. Part of this comes from being raised in an art-centric household. When he shared his idea with his brother J.K. and his friend Walt Versen, they encouraged him to grow his idea into something bigger.
“They said, ‘This is the perfect combination of all the things you’ve been doing for the past 30 to 40 years,’” he recalls.
As David describes it, the residency begins before he introduces himself to the students. There are several meetings with school faculty members so they know what to expect. During the school week, he‘ll focus on social-emotional learning for the school week, including character-building, anti-bullying, and suicide prevention.
Then on the first day, David introduces himself, from his experiences performing as Daddy Warbucks in Arizona Broadway Theatre’s production of Annie in 2012, writing contemporary Christian music, and working with bands such as The Drifters, Tower of Power, and REO Speedwagon. Then he shares the most significant part of his experience:
”In addition to all my experience and training, I’m also a thriving survivor of my suicide attempt.”
He then asks the group what that means, and he explains that despite his struggles with alcoholism, depression, and being “the fat kid that got bullied in school,” he is living his best life yet. And the reason why he mentions these harrowing details goes back to the mission of The UBU Project.
David’s wife rescued him from his last suicide attempt on March 31, 2009. Afterwards, he was diagnosed with recurrent major depressive disorder, PTSD, and free-floating anxiety. He told her that he wanted to do something “positive and creative” with his second chance. (She died of breast cancer several years later.)
Then one day, while driving through the Valley, he heard a startling statistic while listening to NPR: suicide is the leading cause of death in children ages 10 to 14 in Arizona. It also ranks high in any age group across the nation. He wanted to change this, so he started speaking with educators about his experience helping youth through residencies.
”The reason why I do what I do is that it helps you never have to experience the level of trauma and tragedy that I have to experience a great life,” he tells the students.
For the remainder of the residency, David meets with students in individual classrooms to show them how they can use music to express what hope, resilience, self-compassion, and empathy means to them. And while David, whose musical experience ranges from heavy metal, Broadway, and opera, helps the students with the song’s style, the lyrics are entirely theirs. No adult is allowed to help out, including David.
“By Friday, they’ve created a very basic song structure,” he says. “It might be a chorus or a verse. And the cool thing is, which is a little glib, but it’s sort of true, that the kids think they’re in a music workshop. It’s a parlor trick. The music is to help them to create a repetitive mnemonic device so that they remember these words.”
And when students lock into what David is trying to show them, they’ve found a safe space to say the things about themselves they’ve been trying to express but never have. David recalls one residency when during a lyric brainstorming session where a young girl wrote the line, “I hope I get over my depression.”
”That’s great, but that’s 11 syllables,” he said to her. “We only need 10. So, I ask her, ‘Is it your depression? Does that define you, or is it just something that’s there?’”
She stated that those feelings weren’t who she was. “Well, if we get rid of the word ‘my,’ then we have our 10 syllables,” recalls David. “Then another group of kids comes up with the line: ‘Because it makes me not love myself yet.’ Then came the chorus: ‘Hope shines light on depression like a diamond.’ Not in my life would I’ve thought of that.”
Like any teacher, David says he learns just as much from his students as they do from him. The students he has taught have shown an over 30 percent increase in comprehension, and The UBU Project’s website (ubuproject.org) is filled with testimonials from kids, parents, and teachers about the impact he has had on student’s lives.
“I love being a coach on the sidelines,” says David. “I’m like a big, bald Fred Rogers.”
But because of the need to protect students during the pandemic, David and other guest artists aren’t able to meet with students in person. And most school districts don’t use video conferencing software such as Zoom as a safety precaution. Internet lag times prevent David and students from doing anything as a group, making it difficult to share his message of hope, resilience, self-compassion, and empathy with students at a time when they probably need to hear it the most.
David knew The UBU Project needed to evolve during the pandemic, so the organization has been entering into partnerships with organizations such as GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network) and AZSPC (Arizona Suicide Prevention Coalition) to help kids find their voice in social justice situations. He is even making connections at the national level with professional sports. He recalls one powerful moment during one of his residencies when he asked students to write a monologue:
“One man was biracial, and he said, ‘I don’t know what to call myself. I’m here because I want to know where I fit in.’ The monologue he wrote was how he didn’t know what box to check. ‘When I’m with my white friends, I’m the Black guy. When I’m with my Black friends, I’m the white guy. When I fill out a form, I get to choose between Black, white, or Other. I don’t want to be Other. It diminishes me.’”
After the New Year begins, David will start reaching out again to schools to see how The UBU Project can help, knowing that it will be different than it was when he began three years ago. But he’s driven to make it succeed because of what the arts have meant to him in his life, and he wants others to feel empowered by their own creativity.
“We’re still here, and we will be here,” he says. “That’s why my focus is on people’s emotional, psychological, and physical health. I want you here so we can do the thing.”