Campers meet Carrie Underwood, Rascal Flatts during 2016 ACM Lifting Lives Music Camp

Photo of the 2016 music campers performing at the Grand Ole Opry

The Academy of Country Music (ACM) Lifting Lives and the Vanderbilt Kennedy University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (VKC UCEDD) hosted the seventh annual ACM Lifting Lives Music Camp June 23-29, bringing a week of smiles and unforgettable experiences to campers with Williams syndrome.

Williams syndrome is a rare genetic condition characterized by medical problems, including cardiovascular disease, developmental delays, and learning disabilities. These occur side by side with striking verbal abilities, highly social personalities, and an affinity for music.

ACM Lifting Lives partners with the VKC each year to provide campers with a week of fun creating an original country song, culminating in a final performance on the Grand Ole Opry stage. Along the way, ACM Lifting Lives provides opportunities for the campers to meet country music singers and songwriters who participate in the songwriting session, join them in the recording studio, and even sing with them on the Opry stage. During their off time, campers enjoyed line dancing, singing karaoke, listening to live music, and getting their hair and makeup done before their big performance.

Photo of Carrie Underwood greeting the 2016 music campers at Ocean Way Studios

Carrie Underwood greeted the 2016 ACM Lifting Lives Campers at Ocean Way Studios. Photo by Getty Images/Terry Wyatt, Courtesy of ACM Lifting Lives.

This year’s camp included visits by Eric Pasley and songwriter Ross Copperman to assist with songwriting and recording at Belmont University’s Ocean Way Nashville Studios; line dancing with Maddie & Tae at the Wildhorse Saloon; a visit to Seacrest Studios with RaeLynn; karaoke with Montgomery Gentry at Winner’s Bar & Grill; a meet-and-greet with Carrie Underwood; a visit to the Bluebird Café with Maren Morris; and sharing the Grand Ole Opry stage with Rascal Flatts, singing this year’s original song “Happy Together” to a packed house.

The camp is also an opportunity for the campers to participate in research that will help Williams syndrome researchers gain a better understanding of the genetic disorder. This year, campers took part in social skills workshops, led by former VKC postdoctoral fellow and camp director Marisa Fisher, Ph.D. As a part of a pilot for a social skills curriculum, campers participated in two lessons on “How to Have a Conversation” and “Healthy and Unhealthy Relationships.” Fisher, now an assistant professor of Counseling, Educational Psychology, & Special Education at Michigan State University, taught the campers through behavior skills training, which includes instruction, modeling, role play, and feedback.

Camp leaders invite campers and families to comment on the week’s experiences.

“This experience has changed my life,” one camper said. “Hope to see you all again soon. I absolutely enjoyed this camp to the utmost degree!”

“In addition to exposing [my daughter] to a number of new experiences, this camp continues to help her build her confidence, social skills, and independence from her family,” said one parent. “As much as she loves music, it can sometimes be a source of anxiety for her as well, and camp seems to have built up her tolerance for listening to new music/artists . . . . She misses out on many of the experiences others her age get to have, so it is wonderful to see her get to do something that most people can’t!”

Another parent wrote, “To see my child be so lifted up, the smiles and so full of joy, it truly fills my heart.”

VKC director Elisabeth Dykens, who studies Williams and other genetic syndromes, conceived of the Music Camp as the perfect marriage of Nashville Music City USA with research. VKC Leadership Council member Lorie Lytle was instrumental in connecting the Music Camp with ACM Lifting Lives.

Thanks to ACM Lifting Lives, the Music Camp has flourished, benefitting not only the campers and their families but also songwriters, musicians, producers, audiences, and more.

“ACM Lifting Lives Music Camp gives Vanderbilt Kennedy Center researchers a prime opportunity to work with adults with Williams syndrome who’ve come from all around the U.S., even Canada, to participate in this program,” said Dykens, Ph.D., Annette Schaffer Eskind Chair, and professor of Psychology, Psychiatry, and Pediatrics. “Having these campers volunteer their time to participate in research allows us to collect an incredible amount of data in a short period of time. Music Camp has become an invaluable resource to our work, and it brings us such joy to see how much fun the campers have while they enjoy all that Nashville’s music community has to offer.

“Our collaboration goes back to 2010, and we at the VKC are continually appreciative to ACM Lifting Lives for their partnership and allowing us to learn more about Williams syndrome every year.”

For more information about ACM Lifting Lives, visit

Elizabeth Turner is coordinator of VKC Communications.

Pictured top of page: The 2016 ACM Lifting Lives Music Campers performed with Rascal Flatts at the Grand Ole Opry. Photo by Getty Images/Terry Wyatt, Courtesy of ACM Lifting Lives. 


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