In a night celebrating individuals with special needs, the New York Mets invited the Family Residences and Essential Enterprises (FREE) Players Ensemble of Old Bethpage to perform the national anthem for their second year in a row, a blossoming tradition that Director of Day Services Veronica Garcia hopes continues.
“It’s really wonderful,” said Garcia. “It gives the opportunity for many people who hadn’t heard of our agency to learn a little bit about what we do. The group has a great time and it’s really great to be involved with.”
FREE, founded in 1977, has built its business on providing benefits and a support system for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Among the many great programs at the Old Bethpage facility is the performing arts sector, which in addition to the ensemble, includes a drum corp, theatre group and dance group.
“We have every stage of performance that, if you are interested in it, we have staff here to teach you those things,” said Garcia. “It really is a unique program.”
The vocal group was created nine years ago by Bridget Livingston, who has worked at FREE since 2008. Livingston said that she had a vision when starting this program that she wanted to excel the group beyond where they were the year before.
“I knocked on multiple doors and made multiple phone calls to help them understand that this was not just me asking them to come and let them sing, but to open a pathway to come and break barriers,” said Livingston. “For years, when someone had a diagnosis, they were looked upon by their diagnosis. I wanted to disable the label and take away them being looked at as people with disabilities. We should look at them for what their abilities and talent are.”
The ensemble went to Citi Field to audition four or five times, but didn’t make the cut. It was the one year that they didn’t audition, in 2018, that they received a call from the organization to come down and sing at annual fundraising night celebrating Smile Farms, an organization that provides job opportunities for those with developmental disabilities.
“It’s mind blowing, and to be invited back again this year is amazing,” said Livingston. “It just proves that if you have a dream and a passion, and you have someone by your side supporting you, anything is possible.”
Citi Field is one of the biggest venues that the ensemble has ever sung in, which can be both exciting and nerve-wracking for those who usually step onto the field. But for this group, Livingston says that they weren’t even close to being nervous.
“They waited with excitement and enthusiasm to sing,” said Livingston. “They are proud of the opportunity that people have given them to show their talents. It was more them anticipating doing what they love to do. None of them are nervous.”
In addition to singing at Citi Field, the group was also the first to sing at Nassau Coliseum after its reopening, which Livingston jokes that they “beat out Billy Joel” for when they sang at the ribbon cutting and Joel sang afterwards. They also travel to and sing at conferences, state addresses, community events and more.
For Mariel Costanza and Kassandra Valcin, two sopranos, being able to sing in this group means a lot to them.
“We kind of love all the different places we perform, although we all have our favorites,” said Costanza. “Singing at Citi Field was so surreal. It’s a great experience that we have.”
“We have fun singing with each other,” said Valcin. “It makes me feel happy.”
For Livingston, being able to be a part of this every single day has been so wonderful and the singers who make up the FREE Players Ensemble are the biggest reasons for that.
“Sometimes I ask myself if this is really my job,” said Livingston. “I watch their successes and growth, and sometimes its unbelievable to me that I’ve been given the opportunity to be connected to such awesome people. We have a love that’s unconditional. We do something we love together and we’ve bonded together. We’re family.”
For more information, visit www.familyres.org.