Sheila Jones discovered award-winning country singer Martina McBride when her 1994 hit song “Independence Day” ruled the airwaves.
The song tells the story of a daughter who watches silently as her mother endures an abusive relationship and then breaks free by setting fire to the family home. “I grew up in a home with domestic violence. I connected with that song — with Martina’s music,” Jones says.
From that point on, Jones was determined to go to Nashville and work through McBride to fight domestic violence. For years, she satisfied her desire to support McBride and take action as an active member of her fan club. But in 2011, after one fan was diagnosed with cancer, she started a formal nonprofit, Team Music is Love, to organize a benefit walk for cancer research.
Initially, the organization was a fan-only effort. But McBride took notice of what her fan club was up to and reached out to Jones; she wanted to take the foundation under her wing. Today, the organization goes wherever McBride’s tour takes it — so far, to 35 states — and is a key part of the singer’s brand.
Jones, who is the organization’s sole employee, strategizes good works with her volunteer team. They look at where McBride will be singing and organize what Jones calls “flash mob volunteering,” in which a large group of fans show up for charity walks or descend on local shelters, hospitals or food banks to lend their hands. Between 50 to 100 fans get involved in each activity they organize, she estimates, and they pull off about two to three volunteer projects per month.
“A lot of Martina’s songs speak to different causes and social issues,” from domestic violence to hunger to child abuse, she says, and those same themes give focus to Team Music is Love’s work. For the past 3 years, turning that focus into action has been Jones’ full-time career, and she says “there’s no other job I’d rather do.”
Impact Through Localized Efforts
To make an impact, Jones draws on her previous experience in media and fundraising. She worked at Hot Topic Media, which publishes dating and relationship content, for nearly a decade and served as a volunteer coordinator and online fundraising specialist for the American Cancer Society.
By the time Jones started up Team Music is Love, she says she “knew what motivated volunteers, what they enjoyed and what types of events brought people into causes.” She also knew how to seize on a powerful social-media-ready narrative to raise money and mobilize those volunteers.
Team Music Love has “a really great, truly sincere story,” she says, about “a lot of people coming together with a famous person, uniting all these people around the country.”
Jones first gathered fans for a significant group effort in 2011, after McBride released the song “I’m Gonna Love You Through It.” That tune tells the story of a husband who supported his wife through breast cancer treatments. Jones “saw an opportunity as that song was climbing the charts — it brought up a lot of emotions in people.”
She and her fellow fans were inspired by that song to organize Team Music is Love’s first walk. It raised more than $42,000 to start a breast cancer research grant for the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville. And fans around the nation organized their own local walks to support the grant, too. The money helped pay for clinical trials for a new breast cancer treatment for young women.
After the knock-out success of that effort, “it was a natural transition to help other causes, and to get into it on tour.” Team Music is Love hit the road and began partnering with food banks, hospitals and more in the cities where McBride played, reaching out to local officials and nonprofits in advance to see where they could be of the most use. “This is something we can bring to a larger group of fans: a great cause for people to unite around.”
Jones and her team also take on larger, one-off projects. For example, they built a playground in Atlanta with the local Chastain Park Conservancy that caters to kids of all needs and abilities, after crowdfunding the money for the equipment. “Fans came from 10, 15 states to attend and support the effort,” she says.
Team Music is Love also teamed up with Covenant House, a charity that serves homeless children, to bolster a music program in Guatemala City. The two organizations launched a joint crowdfunding campaign and solicited donations to send musical instruments to girls in an orphanage there.
“Now, they have an orchestra of girls who learned to play,” she says. “It’s marrying music with the cause, and turning music into love — it’s the epitome” of what Team Music Love does.
Using Music to Make a Difference
McBride will be touring the nation this summer, and Team Music is Love will, again, be joining her. This time it will focus on aiding food banks near the arenas where McBride will perform, because they’re often the places most in need of the organization’s help, Jones says.
This past weekend in Nashville, Jones, McBride and fans from 25 states and three countries teamed up with emergency food provider One Generation Away to sponsor a mobile food pantry. Together, they handed out about 25,000 pounds of food to nearly 300 families.
“It is estimated that one in six people in Tennessee struggle with food insecurity and one in four kids in Nashville goes to bed hungry at night,” Jones says. “This was our way to doing something about it.”
In addition to combatting hunger, Team Music is Love will stage events that tie to messages in the platinum-selling artist’s 2016 album “Reckless,” Jones says. “We’re always looking for ways to tie in causes with those songs.”
“So many of Martina’s songs speak to causes. After you hear one of these songs, you feel something, and feel like you need to do something,” Jones says. “Her songs mobilize a lot of people. We give them a way to take action.”