Aaram Salam at the keyboard he bought for disabled students at the Mahatma Buds Rehabilitation Centre on Vypin Island in Kochi, Kerala, India
(photo by Hasna Sal)
Aaram Salam to improve the lives of others through music
Aaram Salam was 11 when he figured out that he could not only connect with strangers through playing the piano but make their lives brighter.
Now a senior at The Barstow School in Kansas City, Missouri, Salam has spent the past six years playing music for dementia patients, researching the effects of music on diseases like Alzheimer’s, and most recently, raising funds to purchase a piano for a school in his parents’ native India.
Reaching out to those who are struggling has become a priority in his life. “As people who come from more privileged (backgrounds), we have to help people who don’t have as much as we do,” he said from his home in Overland Park, Kansas.
Most of the international work he’s done has been through the Rotary Club of Cochin Vypin Island in the Indian state of Kerala, where his mother, glass artist Hasna Sal, is from. He has also gathered books, clothes and toys for a school in the Kingdom of Lesotho in South Africa through a Kansas City organization, For the One Ministries.
Salam’s efforts caught the attention of Rotary International, which gave him a humanitarian award in July for his “services to uplift (the) downtrodden.” In August, he was one of seven Kansas youths honored with a Congressional Award Gold Medal.
According to the Congressional Award website, one of the many requirements of eligibility is to have logged a minimum of 400 volunteer hours.
Many of Salam’s volunteer hours came from playing the piano, both around the metro and on trips to visit family in India — almost always for patients with forms of dementia or, in the case of younger people, various mental health diagnoses.
“It’s a scary thing, but you realize the people themselves aren’t scary, and you shouldn’t feel nervous when you’re hanging out, when you’re helping them,” Salam said.
Through his Rotary volunteer work caring for patients at three institutions near his grandparents’ home, he quickly understood that the diseases they lived with were robbing those he served of their pasts and/or preventing them from forming new memories to carry forward.
“I read somewhere that music releases these enzymes in your brain that make you feel good,” Salam said. “I started thinking about using music to help people with Alzheimer’s, and hopefully that brings back some of their memories.”
A couple of years ago, he put that to the test at Care Haven Homes in Johnson County.
“Alzheimer’s patients started tapping their feet to the beat of the rhythm; they were interacting with the music, and that’s what I hoped would happen,” he says.
Then, of course, COVID-19 stopped his efforts, along with everything else.
V.P. Sabu is the secretary of the Rotary Club of Cochin Vypin Island and a district official for Rotary International. He’s known Salam and his family for years.
He says, “Even though he could not return in the summer of 2020, he took on an initiative of raising funds for underserved hospitals and clinics in Vypin Island by doing a musical concert and raising money for COVID patients here.”
That year, Rotary used the funds to buy pandemic-related care supplies.
But as travel reopened and Salam began to feel confident in returning to the island during his summer break, he thought of something new he wanted to do — buy some other kids a piano. Sabu explains that the school, Mahatma Buds Rehabilitation Centre, is a school for “disabled students from poor homes in Vypin Island.” Many of them live there, and, Salam said, they had no piano.
The Gift of a Piano
As someone who’s taken lessons since he was 7 years old and won a Mid-America Music Association medal, Salam had a hard time imagining childhood without an instrument.
“I thought about buying them a piano, and so that’s what we did,” he says. He saved money he’d received for gifts and had a garage sale. He donated the money to Rotary and helped pick out an instrument and delivered it during his month-long summer stay.
“But the issue was that it’s difficult to learn how to play the piano by yourself, especially if you have a mental condition,” Salam says.
Every day, he worked to teach eight or 10 students the fundamentals and wrote down instructions they could refer to in his absence. He hopes that those on the school’s faculty with some musical knowledge will continue the work he started until his next visit.
Salam, who plans to go to medical school and become a doctor, knows from his studies that the effects of listening to music go a long way to alleviate pain. It’s just a thought, but so far, he’s pretty sure that playing an instrument confers even more benefits than hearing one played.
He urges anyone who knows how to play to reach out and either play for or teach others.
“I feel like just playing an instrument brings a sort of calmness to everyone’s minds,” Salam said. “As people who have the ability to give that, we should.”