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June 23, 2024

A Rock Guitarist, a Deep-Sea Fisherman, a Hit Music Producer and a Spiritual Artist: Meet Four More VNSNY Staffers with Hidden Talents!

February 6, 2019

Welcome to the fourth edition of Frontline VNSNY’s ongoing “Hidden Talents” series—featuring profiles of four more VNSNY staff members with special skills you may not have known about!

Do you have a hidden talent that you’d like to share in Frontline, or do you know someone else at VNSNY who does? We’d love to hear about it. Please email us with your hidden talent!

Mike Rocks: Sharing the “Universal Language” of Music

For decades, Mike Rocks, Education Manager, Business Operations in VNSNY’s Education Department, has pursued his passion for music of all types. “I try not to limit myself to specific genres,” he says. Back in the 1980s and ’90s, Mike played electric bass and sang in several rock bands, performing at clubs in New York City’s northern suburbs. “I’d describe our sound as high energy rock—Pretenders, Rush, and Heart with some punk thrown in,” he recalls. Following that, he was part of an acoustic duo, playing mostly singer-songwriter selections.

Since joining VNSNY five years ago, Mike has employed his musical skills as a volunteer with VNSNY Hospice and Palliative Care, playing acoustic guitar and singing to hospice patients and their families. “I tend to play stuff like Van Morrison, Stevie Nicks, Eagles, Kansas…songs that fit well with what the patients’ children would have grown up with,” he says. Mike also performs about once a month at churches and other community venues.

“I’m very glad that music is still a big part of my life,” says Mike. “It’s a universal language that spans cultures, and it’s a great way to connect with people.” He appears to have passed his passion along to the next generation, as well: At a recent family get-together, Mike reports, his 23- and 20-year-old sons, who have developed into guitar and bass players in their own right, joined with Mike and their lead-guitar playing cousin for an impromptu session that was thoroughly enjoyed by all.

Tom Chan: The Big Ones That Didn’t Get Away

While Tom Chan, Senior Maintenance Person II in our Facilities Department, has been with VNSNY for 28 years, his love of fishing began just a decade ago, when a relative talked him into a deep-sea fishing excursion. Tom had such a great time that ocean fishing is now a regular event for him. Every Sunday, weather permitting, he and ten or so friends head to the waters off Montauk in pursuit of sea bass and other good-eating fish. “We always have fun, even if all we catch is some sun and a day of stories and laughs,” he says. When the fish are biting, he adds, “there can also be some friendly competition” around who catches the most or the biggest fish.

Two or three times a year, the group travels to Cape Cod for a full weekend of fishing. They are out on a charter boat each day before sunrise, returning in the afternoon. On Tom’s first Cape Cod expedition, using clams for bait, he reeled in two haddock weighing 38 and 20 pounds respectively, capturing them both on the same line using separate hooks. Unfortunately, it was a big day for the boat—he only came in third place for the prize for the biggest catch.

On those weekends when a day-long outing isn’t possible, Tom and his supervisor Juan Flores often take a short trip to City Island to satisfy their “need to fish.” While he generally finds fishing relaxing, notes Tom, that can quickly change with a large fish on the line. “When you catch something big, it’s a real workout for your back and hands.”

Sam Jackson: Making Beautiful Music Together

“I’ve had a lifelong obsession with music—I had hundreds of music CDs by the time I was in third grade,” says Sam Jackson, Business Manager of the VNSNY Center for Home Care Policy and Research. As a youth, Sam transitioned from piano to trumpet to guitar, playing in school and informal bands up through college. “New York’s amazing music scene was a big reason I moved here back in 2011,” he adds.

When he wasn’t working his day job as a research and administrative assistant at Columbia, Sam played in New York City coffee houses and bars. Realizing he could fill a need by making production services more accessible to other musicians, he acquired some professional recording equipment and began to produce demos for himself and his friends. Sam continued his production work on the side after being recruited by VNSNY six years ago, and through word-of-mouth, he was contacted by up-and-coming jazz saxophonist/singer Maria Grand. “My jaw dropped when I heard her play,” he remembers. “She was on a whole other level.”

The first full-length album Sam produced, Maria Grand’s Magdalena, was named one of Billboard magazine’s Ten Best Jazz Albums of 2018. “I was super thankful to be involved with such talented people,” he says. Sam works with a number of artists, recording, mixing and editing in different venues including his own home studio. “Producing is thrilling, making all the pieces fit together at the same time so that everyone is in a position to give it their all,” he notes. Sam also gets a special pleasure from playing and recording his own music, which spans everything from folk to rock and pop. “It’s a totally awesome, different world,” he says. “It gets me out of my analytical head and is a real release.”

Kei Okada: Creating Meaningful, Shared Experiences through Art

Now in his 13th year at VNSNY Hospice and Palliative Care, Lead Spiritual Care Counselor Kei Okada divides his time between caring for patients and their families, administrative work, and mentoring other counselors. His life-long devotion to artistic expression is an important part of both endeavors, as he applies the skills he refined at Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. and New York’s School of Visual Arts as well as years of work at dance theaters.

In his counseling work, Kei, who is a clinically trained and board-certified chaplain, often uses art as a spiritual aid. He intuitively chooses a form he feels the patient may find inspiring, such as poetry, music or his own photography. He has assembled a collection of his photographs that he feels have a particular spiritual impact. One shows a forest trail leading to a mist-filled opening. “It has the feeling of a passage to the unknown mystery,” he explains. Another photo, taken from a plane, depicts an array of small clouds stretching over the ocean. “One patient told me that after he dies, he is going to step on each of those clouds,” says Kei.

Kei’s aim is to offer them the medium of storytelling, so they can “reflect with new eyes to discover their true values, dignity and beauty” in their end-of-life experience. “For the patients and families, the goal is not to suffer debilitating fear and discomfort, but to own their experience more deeply, and to find their exploration of life and love meaningful,” he notes. “Their beliefs, faith or heritage can be honored to bring peace. I seek to trust their (unseen) potential in their shared experience for their loved ones. And meaningful moments will stay with them and inspire them.”

Outside of work, Kei travels, photographs nature, writes in his journal, and creates poetry to capture stories that represent beauty and human dignity and that will resonate with the patients and families whose spiritual needs he serves.

“Sharing life is sacred,” he says. “I feel privileged and humbled that my patients are sharing a very important part of life with me, and keeping me aware of life’s potential, unpredictability, and preciousness.”

To see a sampling of Kei Okada’s photographs, click on the slide show below.

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