Altoona native combines love of music, helping others to make a difference
When Altoona native Tom Sweitzer was a kid he would use sheets for a stage curtain and convinced neighbors to take on roles in his productions of fairy tales in the backyard of his Second Avenue home.
“He was very musical and very … imaginative, and could see things in his head and produce them so that we could enjoy them, at a very young age,” neighbor and family friend Janet Valentino of Altoona said Wednesday.
Today, Sweitzer, 41, who lives in Middleburg, Va. with his dog, Hazel, is making a difference in the lives of others as the founder and director of A Place To Be, a nonprofit therapeutic arts organization, also in Middleburg, that he opened in 2010.
Music therapy combines two constants in his life – music and helping others. He found “the one niche that sort of connects all the pieces for me,” he said.
About 80 clients a week are served through the organization, which offers therapy to several different populations including those with cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome and traumatic brain injury.
“We have some kids who have ended up with us because they’re bullied and so we call them the fringe kids because … in education there’s a lot of kids falling through the cracks,” said Sweitzer, who specializes in helping those with autism and Asperger Syndrome.
The son of the late Kathleen and Thomas Sweitzer graduated from Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., in 1994 with a bachelor’s in music theater, “but I always knew that I had this really big passion to help others and to teach,” he said.
For 17 years, he was the head of the theater department at The Hill School in Middleburg, Va., where he “fell in love with working with teens and working with young people,” he said.
In 2000, Sweitzer became artistic director of The Hill Playhouse and in 2004 co-founded and was artistic director of the Creative Youth Theater Foundation, which worked with teens in the arts and raised scholarship money.
He would eventually start “Very Special Arts,” a program of theater and music for those with disabilities.
Sweitzer, who taught at Altoona Community Theater summer camps in his late teens and early 20s, said “the constant teaching and using music in the arts with young people for all these years” got him into music therapy.
He “fell in love with using art as a therapeutic tool for younger people,” and decided to go back to school at age 34 after a 13-year-old voice student made a request of him following the traumatic experience of his father committing suicide in front of him.
Sweitzer said, “The boy said to me, ‘I’d like you to help me write a song about my dad,’ and I did, and that was the night I went home and I went online and I said to myself, ‘I’m going back to school.'”
Going back to school “was difficult, but it was completely the right move. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” he said.
Music therapy is the subject of a documentary from Emmy and Peabody-winning filmmaker Susan Koch who began filming in March 2013. The film will feature Sweitzer’s client, Forrest Allen, he said.
Sweitzer began teaching Allen at the age of 7 as a student at The Hill School. He directed him in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ for which, as part of the Middleburg Teen Theater class, a then-12-year-old Allen traveled to Altoona to perform the show at the Church in the Middle of the Block.
At 19, Allen suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result of a snowboarding accident. The teen remained in a vegetative state for nearly a year, “and through many therapies and an amazing family, he has come back to life,” Sweitzer said.
For the first two years of Allen’s recovery he did not speak, but through a therapy called music intonation “we brought his voice back,” Sweitzer said. “And the theory is that [the method is] pitch-based, that we all speak on a certain pitch and once maybe your brain recognizes and remembers that pitch, things will start working.”
Sweitzer has written 35 origi-nal musicals and plays for youth, and produced and directed several advocacy and awareness theater productions with A Place To Be.
His musical “Giggles,” which premiered at The Smithsonian in 2007, got him and two of his students an invitation to the White House for a dinner and a show. He got to meet the President and Mrs. Obama, he said.
Sweitzer has spoke and taught at Shenandoah University, George Mason University and The Disability Summit in McLean, Va., and at The Virginia Association of Independent Schools.
He has written several original musicals, including “Puzzle Piece,”about a family living with autism, and his play “Tootleloo” is based on his experience with his mom’s illness and early death, and a hospice nurse who made a difference.
His hometown of Altoona inspired the play “Porches,” which Sweitzer and Meredith Bean McMath wrote. In 1999, he brought the show home and in 2005 brought it back for an encore.
Sweitzer recently participated in a program called Music Got Me Here at A Place To Be.
“This whole weekend was about my life and Altoona, and I even have a song called ‘Altoona’ that was in ‘Porches,’ the musical years ago. … Altoona completely formed who I am. And I am so proud of my town, I started my show Friday, Saturday and Sunday with my song called ‘Altoona.’ It’s very John Denverish. The chorus goes like, ‘Wrapped inside majestic mountains, covered by the Evergreen.’ I love my home, and I especially love the Mishler Theatre, I love the people, and I am a DelGrosso as well, so I have to come home once in awhile.”
Sweitzer “always had a unique and creative way of looking at things,” his cousin, Michael DelGrosso, said in an email.
“He inspires new ways of thinking and novel approaches to problem-solving in our conversations,” he wrote. “Tom has consistently looked for ways to use his talents in meaningful ways for the betterment of others. I’m not at all surprised to see him as the leader he is, and the visionary who is able to transfer his dreams into action and results. He is a true inspiration.”
Sweitzer specifically gives credit to his then-chorus teacher at Altoona Area High School, Jake Snyder, and his then-drama teacher Darla Wilshire, and his Sunday school teachers at church.
Wilshire, who now teaches at Penn State Altoona, said Sweitzer was extremely talented, and he enjoyed working with everyone on set.
“I can’t say enough good things about him. He is a person who deserves all the success that he gets because he cares so much about other people,” she said. “He’s made his own destiny. He has gone out of his way to start programs, work with people, do things, create things. He has always been an extremely creative person, and I just don’t expect him to stop. I mean, he’s really done really neat things with his life. I’m very, very proud of him.”
Valentino expressed a similar sentiment.
“God love him, he really has done a lot with his life, and I’m very proud that he has taken a God-given talent and done something with it that is only going to help quite a few other people,” Valentino said. “He has enjoyed it, we have enjoyed his talent, but now his talent is going to actually help people not just entertain them.”
Sweitzer keeps his love for theater satisfied through A Place To Be, which also performs theater arts, and acting in other productions.
He played Donkey in “Shrek the Musical” and Leo Bloom in “The Producers” at Shenandoah Summer Music Theater, and is set to play Willy Wonka in an upcoming production of Roald Dahl’s “Willy Wonka” at a regional theater in Virginia.
“So every five months to every year I try to do one thing,” he said. “That fills me up because I definitely still have a performing part of myself that is really truly who I am, that I enjoy.
“But my days, my career and what I’m doing with A Place to Be and music therapy … I couldn’t be any happier in my life to have the job I have. So acting for me is like a dessert. It fulfills maybe a little bit of a personal need when everything else fills up my purpose in this life.”
Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.