Colette Hawley has made it her years-long mission to visit senior centers and sing to residents. The Chicago-based performer hit a snag when the novel coronavirus started spreading, so she decided to bring in some heavy machinery.

With nursing homes across the country prohibiting visitors, Colette rented a 30-foot cherry picker bucket truck to serenade residents from a safe distance: outside the third- and fourth-floor windows of Chicago Methodist Senior Services.

With grateful nursing home residents clapping, waving and some even being brought outside to dance on the sidewalk, the inspiring Memorial Day concert soon found its way everywhere from TMZ to Mark Cuban’s Twitter feed. Colette, a senior advocate, was featured in national news coverage and international headlines.

On Memorial Day, Colette Hawley rented a cherry picker so she could entertain residents through the windows of Chicago Methodist Senior Services. (Susan Besson)

“I did find the overwhelming response really heartening because it indicated to me that people really do want to see something good happening for seniors in these nursing homes,” she said. “People just don’t know what to do and how to do it.”

Full disclosure: Colette is my cousin, and we’re close. I have always been inspired by her story and, when I saw that she was getting a lot of attention after years of hard work, I wanted to tell people more about her.

She has been singing to seniors and Alzheimer’s patients across the country since 2014. When the pandemic hit and she realized she could no longer go inside nursing homes, she decided she had to take drastic measures. She turned to Google and typed “cherry picker rentals.”

After calling a few local rental companies, she asked friends to pitch in to help defray the rental cost and, after receiving the necessary permissions and signing a waiver, she soon found herself placing her 28-inch speaker and wireless microphone into the bucket of a giant piece of unfamiliar construction equipment.

It cost $550 to rent for the day, $400 of which she collected in donations.

“I’m driving down there and I’m thinking: ‘What am I doing? This is crazy,’” Colette, 58, recalled with a laugh.

She was able to teach herself how to safely operate the truck by playing around with the levers for about an hour before the performance after an all-too-brief demonstration from the rental company.

“The guy shows me a few levers and then goes, ‘Okay, bye-bye,’” she said.

With the blessing of the nursing home, she raised herself 30 feet into the air. Once she was at the fourth-floor window of residents, she belted out “All of Me.”

Then she sang “Tutti Frutti” and a stirring rendition of “America the Beautiful.”

The cherry picker gave isolated nursing home residents an up-close view of the performance. It was a spectacle, and they loved it.

“Everybody was smiling and laughing,” said Jenn Ross, art program coordinator at Chicago Methodist Senior Services, which has regularly hosted Colette for performances in recent years. “There’s a huge loss right now without having family members and friends and volunteers here to engage with folks. … It really kind of boosted morale all around.”

Colette’s DIY approach to entertaining seniors with a wide range of oldies from Etta James’s “At Last” to Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” is nothing new. She started six years ago by just showing up at an assisted-living center in Costa Mesa, Calif., and singing for the activities director on the spot in what amounted to a live audition to perform shows for residents.

She got the gig, and she never looked back.

“Colette has always had an amazing heart and a desire to entertain people,” said Cuban, the entrepreneur and owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks who attended Indiana University with Colette, in an email to me. “Leave it to [Colette] to find a way when others don’t know how.”

Reactions from seniors at Colette’s performances have ranged from smiles and tears to dancing and toe tapping. But more than anything, music — which has been well documented for its ability to assist with memory recall in patients suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia — “awakens” them, Colette said. Their posture suddenly becomes upright, their eyes light up, and the singer and the senior are often able to connect on a deeper level.

“When I saw what was happening just from them hearing music,” she said, “it was the most powerful thing I had ever seen music do.”

But Colette, who performs under the stage name “Coco” through her organization Coco’s Songs for Seniors, isn’t just singing to the elderly to be altruistic.

“I had been living in New York City as a singer, and at some point I lost my singing voice,” she recalled. “And I really kind of got depressed and lost because that was my identity … that is my connection to really who I am.”

She would attempt to sing, but the notes somehow weren’t there. She could still sing the low notes but could no longer hit the high notes or midrange notes. “When I went to sing the notes, they did not come out,” she said. “I could not produce the sounds.”

She sought the help of vocal therapists. She consulted doctors. She even had surgery in an attempt to repair her vocal issues. Nothing helped.

Yet years later, Colette found one thing that did help. Unexpectedly, she discovered that the more she sang for seniors, the more her voice slowly came roaring back note by note — to the point where it is now stronger than ever.

“And so I took that as a pretty big sign from the universe that this was where I was meant to be and what I was meant to do,” she said.

She plans to continue performing free shows around Chicago and Illinois for the next few months before expanding to the rest of the country.

“I am offering free shows to anyone, anywhere outside of a nursing home,” said Colette, who set up a GoFundMe.

She is working on a Father’s Day “pop-up concert” from the back of a large flatbed truck to be parked outside a veterans’ nursing facility in downstate Illinois.

Colette used to work in comedy and has executive produced television pilots for Comedy Central. She is quick with a joke and often tells seniors at her shows that she is there “to have a party” with them, but she said the aim behind her mission is not only serious, it’s critical.

“Seniors don’t really have a big national advocate,” she said. “I’m coming in hot through the happy face of music, but my endgame is to stand up for seniors and be an advocate. During this whole crisis, who has been the central voice for them? No one.”

Other places she has performed include the “seniors only” shopping hours at her local grocery store and a parking lot outside the Chicago-area nursing home Bella Terra Wheeling — while wearing a bunny suit on Easter Sunday. She hopes to start conversations about how seniors are both perceived and treated.

“We tend to make seniors disappear. We put them away and we shut them into these places and everyone’s like, ‘I don’t want to go there. It’s too depressing.’ But that’s the weirdest thing,” she said. “Most people will be old, so that’s going to be you. … Wouldn’t you want to be looking at the face of your future and find out a way to make it better?”

Jay Gentile is a writer based in Chicago. His website is Find him on Twitter: @thejaygentile.

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