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Stories from Backstage

Pricey Car Repairs: How Elliott Smith’s Sister Found the SIMS Foundation

SIMS Foundation Board Member Ashley Welch is an Austin musician who plays in the bluegrass band Brand New Key, co-owns the recording studio Crosspick Studio, and is a Project Manager with the Dell Medical School where she works in overdose prevention.

We sat down with Ashley to talk about life during the pandemic, honoring her brother’s life, and why she loves the SIMS Foundation.

You’ve been involved with our organization in some form for over a decade. What initially drew you to SIMS Foundation? 

My brother died in 2003. He was more than a brother to me, he was my role model; a kind, compassionate person who cared deeply about his friends, his community, and the people around him. I looked to him, more than anybody else, about how to exist in this messy world. When he died, I wound up with his car, but after a few years I couldn’t keep up with the expensive repairs. I decided to do what I thought he’d like and what I learned from him- sell his car and donate the money to help others.

By this time I was in Austin, so I started looking for a nonprofit that spoke to me. I knew I’d found it when I came across the SIMS Foundation. It married the two things I was looking for- supporting the music community that he was a part of, (and that I too was growing into), and doing something that could have helped him specifically- providing mental health and substance use support. I asked a few musician friends if they’d heard of the SIMS Foundation, and found out that two of my friends credit the organization for saving their lives. I’ve been doing whatever I can to support them ever since.

As you’ve gotten more involved and are now a board member, how has that changed the way you view the organization?

If anything, my appreciation for the organization and its existence grows by the day. When I first heard about SIMS, I assumed that all big metro areas had something similar, and this was just my local version. Getting to know more about the organization, its mission, and the context of what’s out there (and what’s NOT out there anywhere else), has been eye-opening. Friends in Portland have called me through the years and said, “Hey, we know what SIMS is doing and we want to do something similar here.” It doesn’t exist anywhere else!

Learning about the extent that the SIMS staff and providers go to for their clients, hearing what a difference it’s made in so many lives- and now that I work in the field of substance use, hearing about the precious and scarce resources SIMS provides to their clients, at little or no cost- it feels too good to be true. When I describe what SIMS does to my friends and family, I always find myself saying, “There’s no catch!  If you’re a part of the music community, or a dependent family member of someone who is, and you need help with mental health and wellness or with a substance issue, SIMS has your back and will help you, no strings attached. It’s okay if you live on next to nothing and can’t afford it, or don’t have insurance- they’ve got you. It’s that easy.”

The other big thing to me is that SIMS meets people where they’re at, without judgment. Particularly around substance use. The organization realizes that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and that living with a substance use disorder, and recovery, can come in many forms, and will work with the clients to help them lead happier, healthier lives, whatever that looks like for them. If in-patient rehab is what you need, they’ll make it happen. But, if harm reduction and mental health care to holistically address the issues that may be leading someone down a path they don’t want to be on is better, let’s do that- let’s find a way for you to thrive. We all need creatives- they give us comfort, hope, inspiration, and joy. We need to take care of them, and SIMS does exactly that.

How has the pandemic been for you, as a musician and studio owner? 

I’m in a band that I love, and I co-own a small recording studio with a friend, but unlike a lot of people I know, I don’t rely on either of those things as my primary source of income. I’ve been incredibly lucky and was able to keep my day job from home, so my basic survival has not been an issue, thankfully. But I know a lot of folks in the music industry who are really struggling. It’s been a hard year.

My biggest complaint seems like small potatoes compared with most, but I do really miss playing. We had a big year planned- the City of Austin named a day after us, we were going to be on TV, and we had the most paying gigs booked that we’ve ever had. The recording studio was really starting to take off, and then COVID shut everything down. Both will be back eventually, and I can’t wait to get back into it.

I also really miss live music. Watching beloved venues go under has been hard- losing Barracuda and the North Door really hurt, and thinking about not only the musicians, but also the venue workers, crew, sound people, and lighting folks. I’m hoping that the community will find a way to rebuild and come back strong once things are safe again. I’m so glad that SIMS is there for the music community through all of this, because the services they provide are needed now more than ever.

What are you most excited about in SIMS’s future? 

Two things: live music, and the possibility of expanding SIMS to other regions. SIMS has done a great job of virtual concerts and events this year, like the Music for the Mind live stream from Arlyn Studios, and SIMS Sofa Sessions last May, but nothing beats live events and being in the same room with the musical magic happening. I can’t wait to plan and execute benefit shows again in the future. And we’ve been talking about the possibility of taking SIMS to new cities to support more music communities, and that’s hugely exciting to me.

I often think about how, if there had been a SIMS Foundation where Elliott lived, in Portland or Northampton or New York or LA, things could have gone very differently for him. Had he gotten help earlier, what might have been? The SIMS Foundation not only keeps musicians and industry folks mentally healthy and on a good path, in many cases saving lives, it has also prevented a lot of little sisters from the grief and lifelong devastation of losing their heroes.

Every community needs a SIMS Foundation, and if we can help grow it outside of Central Texas and reach new communities? That would be a dream come true.

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