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Singing back in time

Eighty-year-old June Swaine has always loved music. That's why she was all smiles when three Palm Harbor teens recently serenaded her at the Morton Plant Rehabilitation Center.

Palm Harbor University High School students Brittany Beel, Jessica Manning and Elaine Wilson have formed an a cappella group that performs at local nursing homes and senior centers.

Their most recent program, "Love Songs for Valentine's Day," was a medley of a dozen romantic standards such as My Guy, Chapel of Love and Close to You.

"I loved all of their songs; it brought tears to my eyes," Swaine said when the trio concluded their program in the recreational therapy room.

Swaine is one of 20 permanent residents at the 120-bed rehab and nursing facility in Clearwater.

David Fredrick, 64, has been in the hospital and rehab since October. He is in isolation, so the teens stood outside his door and sang.

"I'm having an excellent day thanks to you," Fredrick told them. "I can't beat a drum, I can't carry a tune, but you were wonderful."

Junior Brittany Beel, 16, formed Singing for Seniors last summer. She is enrolled in Palm Harbor University High's International Baccalaureate program, which requires at least 150 volunteer hours over two years.

"For IB we're required to do (creative action service) projects, so I thought what better way that to do something I love, which is singing," Beel said.

She enlisted the help of senior Jessica Manning, 17, and junior Elaine Wilson, 16. They compiled a repertoire of tunes from listening to oldies radio stations and noting songs that they liked from movie soundtracks.

The trio began rehearsing in July, working out the three-part harmony themselves on the majority of songs. For a few numbers, they consulted Beel's singing teacher for additional guidance.

While a cappella singing doesn't require toting cumbersome instruments around, it does present a challenge.

"Your voice is your only instrument," Beel said. "You don't have anything else to fall back on."

Their first performance for seniors was singing Christmas carols during the holidays. They visited several nursing homes in north Pinellas.

"I like how as the performance goes on, their faces are often transformed," Wilson said. "It's so nice to take something you enjoy doing and see people respond to it."

And getting up in front of people is good practice, said Manning, who will represent Pinellas at the State Thespian Festival in the solo musical category in April.

"It refines your performance," Manning said. "For me, singing is what I want to do as a career, so the more you sing for people, the more you understand how audiences respond to your voice."

Beel, Manning and Wilson enjoy a variety of music and they are active in their school's drama program.

They sing the national anthem at the school's varsity basketball games. One performance was videotaped and sent to the Devil Rays. During test week, they sang silly jingles over the school's public address system to give students FCAT tips.

Beel is learning several songs in French because she will spend a month living with a French family abroad this summer. She lives with her parents, William and Charnell Beel, and a white cockapoo named Princess.

In addition to bringing the Singing for Seniors program to Morton Plant Rehabilitation Center, she volunteers there for three hours every Saturday in the activities room, playing bingo or trivia or watching old movies with the patients.

She acknowledges that she and Manning and Wilson are busy, but Beel said the residents seem appreciative of their efforts. Many of them tell her that they don't get a chance to interact with young people very often, she said.

"It's worth it when we get to see that it makes them so happy," she said.

Jessica Manning, 17, left, Elaine Wilson, 16, center, and Brittany Beel, 16, all of Palm Harbor, sing a capella recently for seniors at Stratford Court healthcare and rehabilitation center. The girls, all Palm Harbor University High School students, refer to their trio as the Candy Canes, which was started by Beel as a school creative service project.