Friday, January 03, 2020 - Updated: 10:11 am
It’s a gloomy Friday outside, but Jim Caprio is filling the room with Christmas joy.
“O Little Town of Bethlehem,” he sings, strumming his guitar. He is accompanied by flutist Debbie Vavrek. His dog, Eddie, lies quietly at his feet.
Most of the residents in the audience before him are in wheelchairs. Some sing along, while others are lost in thought. “Good singing, Catherine, I heard you back here,” says Roberta Smith, director of activities at the Grand Residence of McMurray, where the Christmas concert is taking place.
Eddie occasionally gets up and walks from resident to resident, wagging his tail. They smile and pat his head.
Caprio sings “Angels We Have Heard on High,” then pauses to read a passage from Luke 2:1-16 about the birth of Jesus. “This is what Christianity and Christmas is all about,” he says.
In singing “Joy to the World,” he reminds them, “When you sing, God always says you’re praying twice.” The residents tap their feet to the music and the joy on their faces is evident.
Caprio entertains at the Grand Residence monthly, always accompanied by Eddie. He also makes visits to the Baptist Home in Castle Shannon, Paramount Senior Living in Peters Township and the Bethel Park Retirement Community. He is a musician at St. Benedict the Abbot Parish in Peters Township. Before that, he played at St. Louise de Marillac Parish in Upper St. Clair.
“Every time he comes it’s always joyful,” Smith said. “He shares his joy with them. He loves what he does and they enjoy it. It makes their day.”
The lights go out after a falling tree knocks down a nearby power line, but the music continues by candlelight.
In introducing “White Christmas,” Caprio relates that his father once described how soldiers would cry when they sang it overseas during World War II. Many of the residents nod in agreement.
Caprio would later point out that while many of the residents have problems with memory, the words of beloved songs come easily.
He spoke of having 10 grandchildren of Asian heritage, and in singing “Some Children See Him,” he noted how children all around the world see Jesus differently.
Sarah Mendelsohn was among the more engaging members of the audience. She sang along with each tune and greeted Eddie enthusiastically.
“He’s wonderful,” she said of Caprio. “There’s something about him. He’s so warm. And everybody just loves Eddie.”
Vavrek, who also plays at Christ Methodist Church in Bethel Park, spoke of the effect music has on audiences, adding, “It’s great to see the smiles on their faces.”
Caprio still works two days a week, assembling refractory materials for large furnaces. He leads a Communion service once a month at the Baptist Home and plays before a St. Louise de Marillac service of readings at the Grand Residence. Caprio also spends two days a week making room visits at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
“You just have to find moments where you’re doing something that means something,” he said.
His faithful companion, Eddie, is a 4-year-old yellow Labrador retreiver, originally trained as a service dog through Therapy Dogs International.
Caprio tries to put himself in the place of the people he meets. They are usually confined to a small world and have no place to go. A lot of them don’t have anyone who comes to visit them.
“They need a diversion,” he said. “It’s the circle of life.”
He joined Father Nicholas Argentieri, chaplain at Children’s Hospital, for a noon Mass on Christmas Day at the hospital in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood. On Dec. 30, Caprio joined Kelly Ziemba, principal flutist for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, for a performance at the Baptist Home. He first performed with Ziemba when she was a student at St. Louise de Marillac School and they still occasionally perform together.
Caprio described it as a “blessing” to be with the elderly residents. He isn’t making a sacrifice; he is just there to accompany them.