Columbus Native Co-Founds Orchestra for Mental Health: Q&A with Caroline Whiddon of Me2/ Orchestra

Less than a decade ago, Columbus native Caroline Whiddon and her husband Ronald Braunstein founded the world’s only classical music organization created for individuals with mental illnesses and the people who support them.

Though Me2/ Orchestra has gotten international attention for the groundbreaking work their organization is doing, their story has not received much buzz locally until now. This week for the very first time, Orchestrating Change, a full-length documentary made about their work will air locally on Georgia Public Broadcasting.

We sat down with Whiddon to better understand the story of Me2/ Orchestra and to offer a glimpse behind-the-scenes into the incredible organization behind this important documentary we're hoping you'll watch on GPB this week.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ronald Braunstein conducts Boston's Me2/ Orchestra.

Image by Erik Patton.

Q: Caroline, I hear you are a Columbus native. How are you tied to our community?

A: Though I was not born in Columbus, I consider it my hometown. My parents relocated to Columbus for their jobs at what was then Columbus College when I was a year old. I grew up in Columbus. I went to Clubview, Richards, and I'm a graduate of Hardaway. I also did one year at Columbus College at the music department before I transferred out to The Eastman School of Music.

Q: Did you return to Columbus after college?

A: I did. I went away for school, and then I came back to Columbus for two or three years. I gave private French horn lessons, and worked part-time at the Columbus Symphony as the music librarian. I marked all the parts, and had the wonderful privilege of working with George Del Gobbo.

It was such a great experience because in addition to being the librarian, I also got to assist the marketing director as needed. I learned so much during that time. Then, when George and my mother decided to found the Youth Orchestra of Greater Columbus, I was the founding manager. So that was really nice. My first kind of solo experience learning to understand the administrative side of the arts.

Q: That must have been an incredible time in your life.

A: Oh, it was. I spent two years just soaking up all that experience of starting an organization from scratch. I learned how to help to recruit board members, create a donor base, write grants, get music to the kids, set up performances, all of it.

The founders of Me2/ Orchestra, Ronald Braunstein and Caroline Whiddon.

Q: Did you enjoy it?

Absolutely. That's really where I fell in love with the offstage part of Arts Management. Between my time at the Columbus Symphony and then having that incredible opportunity to start the Youth Orchestra with George and my mom. I mean, it was all just phenomenal experience I was so fortunate to have at such a young age. I also completely fell in love with the work.

Q: Where did you go next, Caroline?

After working for two seasons with the Youth Orchestra, I left Columbus and went to Savannah to work for the symphony there. Though I haven't lived in Columbus since then, my dad and my brother still live there so I'm there at least a couple times a year.

Q: How do you feel about your hometown now? If you haven't lived here since the 90s, a lot has changed!

A: Oh, I can't believe how much it's grown and I'm constantly amazed by how much the cultural scene has grown. Every time I'm home, I just yeah soak it all in as much as possible. I love Columbus, and any time spent there is never enough.

Q: Let's fast forward a bit. You've spent your life working in arts administration, but how did the Me2/Orchestra get started?

A: Let me say first that I definitely never planned to be professionally back in a place where I would be starting an organization from scratch again. You know, generally you think you do that and then continue moving up to work for bigger and bigger organizations. I was in Savannah two years, but spent the majority of my career working at a great job in Vermont as the Executive Director of the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association.

Q: How long were you there?

I was there for thirteen years. It was actually the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association that hired the man who would become my husband who would later become the co-founder of Me/2 Orchestra, Ronald Braunstein.