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Taken from The Starphoenix (Oct 23, 2013)

Romance has a rock-solid foundation

Sara Agah and Michael Franti

by Andrew Matte and Jenn Sharp, The Starphoenix

Rocker Michael Franti met his girlfriend Sara Agah at the Regina Folk Festival in 2008.
They started the Do It For the Love Foundation this summer.
Photograph by: Bridges Photo By Bryan Schlosser , The Starphoenix

The power might have gone out during the Regina Folk Festival of 2008, but there was plenty of electricity later that night when a Saskatoon nursing student met a rock star she'd never heard of.

Sara Agah assumed festival headliner Michael Franti was being a stereotypical musician when he invited her group of friends backstage after the concert. But her introduction to the Californian known for his antiwar messages and positive, hip-hoptinged music led to an exchange of emails and online video chats that developed into a three-year platonic relationship.

Today, the socially conscious couple is two years into a full-blown romance and talking marriage. "I found myself coming to her during times when it wasn't just for fun," said Franti, 47, before a recent concert at the Conexus Arts Centre in Regina.

"When I had times in my life that were difficult, I'd call her. And the same thing with her. When something was hard for her, she was reaching out to me," adds Franti, who is 6-foot-6 and known for going barefoot in public.

"That is when we realized we had a relationship that was bigger than a partnership."

Agah calls Franti her perfect partner because he shares her passion for philanthropy, which led to the creation of the Do It For the Love Foundation, which sends music fans who are wounded veterans, terminally ill, or disabled to concerts.

"I realized that we live our life in the same way ... Michael inspires me to be a better person," said Agah, 29, adding concerns from her friends and family about dating a musician much older than herself are diffused after they meet him.

"I love him for the man he has become. I know he has kids and has been in relationships. I am not sure I would have fallen in love with him if I met him when he was 22."

The weekend trip from Saskatoon to Regina had been a lark. Friends invited Agah to the Regina Folk Festival where Franti was a feature performer. The August concert was thwarted by rain and a power outage, which prompted Franti and his band to take turns on the bongos to keep the music flowing during the unexpected pause.

With the power restored and concert complete, Franti began a post-show custom of talking to audience members and inviting a few backstage.

"I remember it was raining and Sara had on this big dark poncho raincoat thing. I asked

her and her group to come backstage and that's when I realized that Sara was not just beautiful, she was also brilliant," Franti said. "I assumed we'd share a few emails and I thought maybe I found a new friend, but never thought more would come of it."

Agah assumed the same. "When he asked me backstage, I just rolled my eyes and thought, 'He's just another rock star.' But we hung out and we became friends."

Not long after that, the two shared texts and emails that usually included positive or motivating messages, one of the first signs that they had more in common than they realized.

"I remember he was in Europe and I was still in nursing school and he would send me these encouraging messages throughout the night," she said.

Franti increasingly enjoyed the friendship and support he received from Agah, even though she was in Saskatoon working as an emergency room nurse at Royal University Hospital while he was at home in San Francisco or on tour.

Agah travelled to Haiti after the earthquake in 2010 to help with relief efforts in Port-au-Prince's main hospital. The experience was eye-opening; she treated patients with HIV/AIDS, dengue fever and malaria, many of whom were living in squalid and unsafe temporary settlements. Families had to supply blankets and food; the beds were mesh cots.

"I saw what really sick people look like; people who are not getting the care that they need." Her biggest challenge upon returning to work in Saskatoon was trying to empathize with people who complained about doctor wait times or uncomfortable beds.

"I had to always remind myself that I can't minimize their discomfort. They're feeling what they're feeling because of their own experiences."

As for Franti, he said their connect became stronger when they compared notes at the end of the day.

"She had this thing where she asked, 'Who did you make feel significant today?' Before we went to bed every night, we'd ask each other whose life they made significant. She'd talk about a patient who shared a story or something like that or I'd talk about someone I had met at a show," said Franti.

Their relationship became a romance in 2011 when Agah fulfilled a plan made years earlier to practise nursing in California. Both agree they benefitted from being forced to make the best of Internet chats during a long-distance relationship. "It helped us understand each other on an intellectual level and an emotional level but not a physical level. So we had a chance to really get to know each other as friends and partners before we jumped into a relationship," said Franti.

"No relationship is perfect and if anyone tells you theirs is, they're lying. But the biggest thing we do is try to communicate. Making that effort makes a huge difference," said Agah.

Franti said he was never attracted to the typical celebrity lifestyle. "Throughout my time as a musician, I've had girlfriends. But I have been a serial monogamy person. I'm not a girl-in-every-city kind of guy. It's just not important to me like having someone I share an important connection with," he said.

"My relationship with Sara is the best relationship I've been in. It doesn't compare."

The relationship means Agah often lives like a rock star. She rides as a member of the band on custom buses and watches concerts from the audience or beside the stage. She also speaks out about issues dear to her heart, like women's rights. She and Franti were guest speakers at the Inaugural Intercontinental Leah Tutu Symposium on rape and violence against women in Bloemfontein, South Africa this month.

However, she's still able to put in long hours at Sara Lua Designs, the online business she started to sell T-shirts and her handmade jewelry. She donates part of the proceeds to Do It For the Love. It's a passion she says has taken over her life.

"I always feel like I need to surround myself with things and people that remind myself of the person I want to be ... (This work) allows me to be the best version of myself."

Agah still takes occasional nursing shifts in Saskatoon and California, but concedes that life with Franti requires planning. Even though she joins him on tour, she wasn't willing to give up her career.

"This is not a vacation. That is the biggest misconception," she said.

In recent months, Do It For the Love has taken up more of Agah's time.

The concept began after the couple met Steve and Hope Dezember at the Wanee music festival in Florida this past April. Steve is in the advanced stages of ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), an illness that attacks and paralyzes the nervous system. He and his wife had been Tweeting to Franti, saying this might be Steve's last concert and that he hoped to meet the rocker.

Franti welcomed the couple backstage where both he and Agah gave the couple a big hug, and spent several hours together.

"It was one of those moments where we all just started crying because we were in awe of one another," remembered Hope.

Franti shared their story with the crowd of 20,000 and brought them onstage during Life Is Better With You, a song he wrote for Agah. Hope lifted Steve out of his wheelchair and held him; there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

"It was the most amazing moment of our lives," said Hope. "It was something I'll treasure forever."

Speaking over the phone from their home outside Atlanta, Ga., Hope says it's been their mission to make sure people pay attention to ALS's effects. There is no known cure for the devastating disease. Steve is currently in the intensive care unit.

The couple dated for six months, during which Hope remembers Steve struggling with severe pain in his wrist. When Steve was diagnosed with ALS he was given two to five years. He told Hope she didn't have to stay with him.

"I was looking at him the whole time like he was crazy," said Hope. "He said, 'Well, if you do stay with me, will you marry me?' And, of course, I said yes."

They married two months later, on Oct. 15, 2011.

"It was all very fast. But we didn't have a lot of time. We realized that."

Hope has since quit her job to take care of Steve full time. They started the website Hope For Steve as a way to keep people updated on Steve's health and to spread awareness about ALS. The disease has no known cure. To date, Steve has received a small amount of disability covering roughly half his medical expenses. The couple relies on the blessings of others to get by.

"This is not an old man's disease," said Steve in an online video. "Obviously we've gotta find a treatment and we've gotta figure out a way to live with ALS and keep us alive longer than two to five years."

When he's feeling well, Hope says he's eager to have fun with her and to "make memories."

"I think the most important trick is to stay happy. You have to have something to live for and you've gotta want to live. So to keep a positive attitude about the worst prognosis you can have is very vital," he said later in the video.

Franti and Agah check in frequently with the Dezembers, sending regular updates back and forth. Witnessing how music can bring joy to people facing incredible adversity was a pivotal event for them.

"We went home that night and said, 'What can we do to make this experience happen again and again and again for other people?'" said Agah.

The foundation gives wounded war veterans, adults and children with a disability or terminal illness "two tickets and a smile" to any concert they wish to see in their city, along with meeting the artist if they choose.

"It's like a make-a-wish foundation for music fans," said Franti.

Do It For the Love has caught the attention of Saskatoon yogi Ryan Leier. Through October, One Yoga's weekly karma class will donate all proceeds to the foundation. Leier says it was an easy decision to support Agah and Franti's new venture, counting them among his friends in Saskatoon's yoga community. He's also in awe of the way Franti brings joy to people's lives and the way he gets people, like Steve and Hope, involved in his shows.

"I love what they're doing, being a voice for people who need it. I really appreciate people who use their power to help."

Though their schedule has been too hectic to make plans, Franti and Agah say their future includes a wedding and a home in Saskatchewan.

"It's not really about her waiting or me waiting. It's more about finding a window of time to do that," said Franti, who spent a year in Edmonton as a teen as part of a school exchange. "I feel like I've been welcomed into Saskatoon. Ideally, we'd like to have a home there. I love Saskatchewan and I love Alberta. I love seeing my country from the outside."

Agah wants to take time to plan a wedding rather than have a quick ceremony. But she's hoping things will happen within five years.

"I want to be married and have kids." As for the timing of a wedding, Franti may have planted the seed at the Sept. 30 concert in Regina.

"I'd like to thank the City of Regina for introducing us ... I'm sorry she's from Saskatoon," he joked to the crowd.

"Maybe by the time we come back to play, we will have taken things to the next level."


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