Abbie Kent (HBSc’18/MSc’20) and her sister Milli Schop – a member of Barrie rock band The Straits – are harnessing their shared love of music to lift spirits and help vulnerable people during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The sisters grew up in Simcoe County where Abbie completed one year of her Honours Bachelor of Science at Lakehead's Orillia campus before moving to the Thunder Bay campus to complete her degree and enroll in the Master of Health Science program.
When the pandemic became a serious medical health crisis in March, Abbie was finishing her master's degree and had to make a quick decision about where she wanted to spend lockdown.
“My roommate and I jumped in the car and drove two days to get back home,” she says. “Now I’m living in Barrie with my mom, Milli, my brother-in-law Dan, and my nephew Jack at Milli’s home.”
Sheltering together has turned the household into a place where music is front and centre.
That’s not surprising since Abbie and Milli have been singing their whole lives – around campfires, in Orillia’s St. Paul’s Children’s Choir, and in musicals like Anne of Green Gables. As adults, they’ve continued to sing choral music and, for several years, Milli has sung with The Straits. She was invited to join the popular group by her brother-in-law and bandmate Jason McNeil.
I went and I’ve never left since.” As well as performing with The Straits, Milli is the director of customer experience at Napoleon Fireplaces in Barrie and has been working remotely since March.
The Straits are a mainstay of Barrie’s music scene. They consider themselves to be a Saturday night sing-a-long band and, before the pandemic, they played in clubs and at private events like backyard parties and weddings.
"One night," Millie says, "Jason called me and said, 'We're on stage, you better get up here and sing with us.' I went and I've never left since." As well as performing with The Straits, Milli is the director of customer experience at Napoleon Fireplaces in Barrie and has been working remotely since March.
More recently, though, they’ve been focused on giving back to their community by raising thousands of dollars for charity through the band’s Facebook page, Barrie’s Live Music Show.
“We have over 9,000 followers on the site now,” Abbie says. Barrie’s Live Music Show features performances by The Straits, other Barrie bands, and performers from across Canada.
“We have over 600 videos of different artists – both live and recorded events – on our Facebook page,” Milli says.
This initiative was born in the spring of 2020 when the band was trying to figure out how they could keep gigging.
“We’d seen the Halifax Kitchen Party online music group,” Milli says. “It’s huge and tens of thousands of people follow them. They were the inspiration for our Facebook site. Once our Facebook page was up and running, things picked up really quickly, so we decided to use it as a platform to raise money for local charities.”
Abbie, who considers herself an honorary member of The Straits, was also involved at an early stage. “When I’m not in Thunder Bay, I’m down here supporting The Straits behind the scenes in any way I can,” she says. “My role is to promote and advertise The Barrie Live Music Show and to occasionally perform by myself or with members of The Straits.”
“We give to a different charity every week,” Abbie explains, “and so far, we’ve raised over $35,000 for local charities including the Barrie Food Bank, the Women’s and Children’s Centre, and the Royal Victoria Hospital in Barrie.”
The money for the hospital was used to purchase ventilators and iPads for patients unable to connect with their loved ones because of social distancing requirements.
Abbie's work supporting community members in times of crisis dovetails perfectly with her academic and vocational path.
During her master’s degree at Lakehead Thunder Bay, she specialized in Indigenous and Northern Health. “For my thesis, I worked with a fabulous team of Lakehead researchers and community partners to develop an online app to improve maternal mental health in Northwestern Ontario.”
“We created the app because women in rural and remote communities don’t always have adequate access to support and care. It’s designed to allow them to receive therapy and telephone-based coaching services.”
In addition, the app – which she hopes will launch in 2021 – is able to conduct risk assessments of each individual’s mental health. If the assessment determines that someone needs more support than the app can provide, it automatically directs them to in-person services in their community.
This autumn, a new chapter is unfolding in Abbie’s life as she begins studying at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine in Thunder Bay to become a physician. She sees a connection between the power of music and her aspiration to become a doctor.
“Music is healing. In times like these we really only get through it as a community. We lean on each other.”
Milli agrees with her little sister.
“This is a good time to sit down with a guitar or your grandmother’s piano and play a few songs and share them on Barrie’s Live Music Show. We are a 100% judgement-free zone – we’re looking for people who want to help people feel better.”