Changing the lives of artists with special needs, one video at a time.
Changing the lives of artists with special needs, one video at a time.
Kyle Mounce is a happy-go-lucky guy,” says his mother, Paula. “He feels like everyone he meets is his friend. He’s very sweet and very polite.” The teenaged Kyle loves to sing, and is part of his school choir. He also sings at church and, according to his mother, “would love to be a singer, talk show host or MC.”
Kyle has a fraternal twin brother—who appears in the video—younger by six minutes and taller by many inches. Unlike his twin, Kyle was born with autism. Though he does well in school, he faces social challenges.
“He acts differently than his peers, and struggles with the fact that he is different,” says Paula. “He knows he’s autistic and we reassure him that he’s fine, and tell him that’s what makes him special.”
Kyle had always dreamed of making a music video, and was thrilled to get the opportunity. He was surprised by how long the process takes, and by many times he had to sing his song. The filming took all day, and he got to be interviewed on radio and television. In one interview when Kyle was asked whether it was stressful for him having to record the tracts over and over again, he responded, “You have to experience failure to be amazing.”
Kyle Mounce, "May Angels Lead You In"
Tristen Chen is gifted with language, music and math. Only three months before his second birthday, Tristen lost his sight, the result of an eye-nerve development delay. His frantic parents were told by a Stanford physician, “Don’t worry. He will be fine.” And the doctor was right, according to Tristen’s mother, Renee Hu.
“He began talking very early,” said Renee. “At one year old, he could speak, and so when he suddenly lost his vision he was able to tell his grandmother about it.” As a toddler, Tristen’s favorite toy was an electronic keyboard. At the age of three, and with no instruction, he performed Yesterday Once More, a song by Richard Carpenter and John Bettis, playing with both hands on the keyboard. The parents took notice and got him lessons. Now in grade school, Tristen is a composing musician—and quite gregarious.
When Tristen got to play piano for his EIAS video, the result was not only a musical joy, but a social one. He was as much delighted by the experience as by the outcome. Every time he hears his video he gets excited. “He loves it,” says his mother. “It reminds him of the whole day he spent with Howard and the team.”
Tristen Chen solo piano with Everybody Is A Star
“I like putting on music and moving around,” says Jasmine Dana. “Dancing is fun, it makes me happy.”
Being happy defines Jasmine, even as she meets the daily challenges of being an autistic 16-year-old. While learning is a struggle for her, Jasmine loves school and retains a perfect memory of everyone she meets, including each person’s birthday and where she last saw them.
“Jasmine loves people and clothes,” says her mother, Sainaz. “If she likes what you are wearing she will compliment you.” Extraordinarily kind, Jasmine always tries to cheer those who are feeling blue.
Making her EIAS dance video was fascinating and fun for Jasmine. She was thrilled by the positive attention she got both during the filming and afterwards, when viewers congratulated her and praised her performance.
Jasmine has been volunteering for the past two years, helping feed the homeless. For her service she has earned a White House a gold medal acknowledging over 2,000 hours of service. Now Jasmine is now aiming to earn a lifetime achievement award, requiring 10,000 service hours.
But meanwhile Jasmine keeps dancing, currently learning a more difficult dance form called bhangra, combining hip-hop and disco, set to Punjabi music. It makes her happy.
“When I sing I feel like I am looked at in a different way,” says Jeannette Denny.
She chose her video song as a personal message. “Look at the lyrics,” she said. “Here’s the sun, the beautiful people coming out of their shells, the ice is melting like the hard stuff in life and in people and in the universe in general. Let’s just have some love and respect and be who we are—be our true selves instead of hiding from that—and not be ashamed of whatever.”
Jeanette feels transformed by recording her musical self. “That song represents everything I have done, everything leading up to who I am today.”
Making her video “was a blast” and she appreciated being “very included in the process.” Jeannette also likes being part of the EIAS community. “I enjoy the activities we do in Everybody is a Star, like singing at the games. The events have a lot of meaning to me and are really big. I have more self-confidence now instead of hiding or feeling ashamed.”
Asked whether she promoted her video, Jeannette quips, “I wasn’t on the street with a sign saying ‘Watch my video,’ but I’ve shared it with everyone I care about.”
David Ren is a student-musician who, when diagnosed with autism and “poor muscle tone” at age four, could not even hold a pencil. Now in his mid-twenties, David gardens, plays basketball, practices martial arts, studies three languages and has sufficient mastery of piano, harp and ocarina that in 2014 he performed a one-man benefit concert, raising almost $5,000 for Friends of Children with Special Needs.
Having overcome many obstacles, David says he still struggles with “putting my own thoughts together.” With diligent effort, he extended his attention span from under 30 seconds to over an hour—quite an accomplishment. He learns constantly, with strong family support. “Everything he had trouble with we made sure to challenge him with it,” says older brother Alex.
When asked how the music video made him feel, David said, “Excited!” Accustomed to his own at-home recording sessions, David was amazed that the studio used by EIAS staff was soundproof—a great pleasure to him, along with “meeting all the people who helped.”
From weakness to strength, David says he has overcome “90 percent” of the challenges facing him. The remaining 10 percent include writing and better auditory comprehension. “I’ll keep learning,” he said.
Meanwhile, his mother Jennifer boasts that David just memorized the longest poem in Chinese literature, almost 2,400 characters. “He has a very good memory,” she said.
Tony Salizar is a born musician. “He loves playing music,” says his mother, Emily.
Being sight impaired is not an obstacle on stage, and neither is the autism which makes Tony’s verbal communication a struggle. “When speaking, it’s hard for him to get things across,” explains Emily. “There is a delay and he gets nervous. But when he sings, there’s no impairment.”
Tony is lead singer and pianist in a 16-member special needs band, and has turned down offers to play with mainstream musicians. “Being part of the special needs music group makes him feel like he fits in,” says his mother. “And no one is going to judge him when they are up on the stage.”
Tony plays music by ear and knows 300 songs, with some in Spanish—including Zacatecas and Durango mariachi songs. Making his music videos was Tony’s dream come true, an experience that elevated his self-esteem and created new friendships and a greater sense of belonging. “Everybody is a Star is a community,” says Emily. “I think of as family. They have been incredible with Tony, every single one of them. It is priceless what the experience has done for me and for my son—now everybody out there can see what I see within my own child.”
Tony Salazar Imagine
Twenty-four–year-old Glenn Leigon has his own apartment, car and social life. Despite a complex set of challenges, Glenn has mastered techno-music knowledge and the technical skills necessary to pursue his dream—he currently performs as a professional DJ. And he would love to be a famous one.
A highly creative and spontaneous person, Glenn is an excellent drummer. In all he does, he moves fast, speaks with force, and lives in the moment. Also an avid Furry Fandom participant, Glenn’s social network is vast. “He’s always online,” says his mother Denae. “And he stays in contact with lots of people.”
Having his own music video has been a positive experience. “The process of making the video helped him see himself as a great DJ,” said his father, Bill. “It made him feel that he fit in, that he belonged to a social group. His self-confidence took a big leap.” Glenn has phenomenal talent with both patterning and rhythm, and uses both in his DJ work. “The DJ thing helps bring left and right brain together, and gets him into his body,” says Bill. “It’s a great centering activity.”
And it brings him joy. “Glenn’s got the greatest smile,” his mom says. “His eyes just sparkle.”
Though he didn’t speak until age four, Loren Moale was fascinated by radio, microphones, acting and singing. “Once he learned to talk,” says his mom, Ruth, “He learned to sing.” And twenty-something years later, his singing and talking have been heard by thousands of people—via video, radio, television and stage mics.
Overcoming many challenges of autism, Loren developed a voice that has served him well in reaching goals and pursuing his performance interests. “I’m very proud of all the things I’ve accomplished in my life,” he says. Proud also of his EIAS video, Loren describes making it as, “two of the best days of my life,” including filming on the Golden Gate Bridge—a real thrill for him. “The video has built a lot of confidence in me,” he says.
The video led to publicity for Loren, and to volunteer jobs making public service announcements on local radio and television. He now holds a job, makes radio announcements, drives a car, and sings in a choir. Loren also serves as MC at fundraising events. When EIAS performers sing at major sporting events, Loren is in heaven, as he was when they sang at the Boston Green Festival—his first east coast trip. “I just loved it,” said Loren.
Loren Moale, "I Haven't Met You Yet"
Eva Sapper is a creative person—a singer with a flair for fashion and a knowing smile.
Her music video was the creation of artist-filmmaker Peter Mc Evilley for Eva’s high school senior project. After making Eva’s video, Peter wanted to make videos for other talented, special needs musicians, so he enlisted the help of Eva’s father, Howard Sapper, and the Everybody Is a Star Foundation was born.
Having a music video that so many people wanted to watch on You Tube empowered Eva as a performing artist, and lifted her self-confidence.
“Everyone said I couldn’t walk or talk because of my stroke at birth,” Eva once told a reporter. “But I can walk and I can talk and I can sing and I can dance.”
Eva Sapper "Love Story"
Will Hansen has perfect pitch. The 23-year-old pianist also has an extraordinary ability to calculate dates in his head. Although he is on the spectrum of autism, Will is extremely outgoing and yearns to connect with others.
“Will loves feeling like he has a place in the world where he belongs,” says his mother, Mellen. “A place among his peers.” Being part of Everybody Is a Star has been extremely positive for Will, especially the music events, including performing with peers at professional sports events. In 2017, the Warriors team presented Will with an award for special achievement. “It’s a real source of pride for him,” said Mellon. “So is his video.” Will dances to his video, and proudly shows it to friends.
Will performs with the Woodlanders, a band of special needs musicians. “When he feels part of a group of peers,” his mother explains. “He’s never better.”
Warm and loving, Will is always reaching out in friendship. If Will learns your birthday, he will correctly announce which day of the week your next birthday will fall. He will also remember it and sing Happy Birthday if he sees you that day. “Will is the life of any party,” says his mother. “He meets the world with open arms and bright eyes.”
“I choose to be happy,” says Casey Rohrer, using his computer to express his thoughts.
The wheelchair-bound playwright and actor has cerebral palsy incurred from a birth injury, and can neither speak nor use his limbs. But through a computer that uses eye-gaze technology, Casey pursues playwriting and drama courses. He can even program his computer to speak in a range of expressive voices when he is acting a dramatic role on stage.
Casey is thrilled with his EIAS video, and the experience that filming it gave him. The video also helped fill every theater seat for both performances of his first play. “He was so excited by the video,” his mother Beth recalls. “It really boosted his confidence and made him want to keep going. He was amazed that he had an audience, that people wanted to hear his story, and that others cared about him.”
Because cerebral palsy paralyzes organs as well as limbs, Casey has many health issues to fight, and is consequently small for his age—fewer than 50 pounds at the time he filmed his video—with low energy reserves. But this theater-loving teen has a tremendously positive attitude.
“He has the most positive attitude of anyone I have ever met,” says Beth. “He never lets anything get him down.”
Casey Rohrer, playwright
More than anything, Mikayla Barber loves to sing her heart out—daily. For Mikayla, the experience of making her EIAS music video was life-changing.
Born with fragile X syndrome, 23-year-old faces a range of social and learning challenges. Suffering muscle weakness and low energy challenges, Mikayla could endure high school only 4 hours a day, and her present job only 5 hours. She can’t function as quickly as most people, and at work, because her disability doesn’t show, Mikayla is often the target of rudeness from angry customers who demand fast-thinking assistance. She now wears a badge declaring, “Please be patient. I have special needs.”
But when she’s singing, there are no special needs: Mikayla is powerful and happy. So the opportunity to make a music video was a dream-come-true for her. Yet the filming and recording had to be done all in one day—a non-stop, 18-hour push. Could she do it?
“Making that video changed her life,” says Miki’s mother, Tracey. “It was a huge breakthrough.”
When the day came, Mikayla pushed herself harder than she ever had in her life—a profound personal triumph. Her video is a family treasure. “We still watch it,” says Tracey. “And we all cry. To this day, Mikayla knows she can do anything.”
Latron is a born musician with perfect pitch. He plays piano with such feeling you would never guess that he lives what appears to be a non-relational life: he follows an extremely rigid schedule in lock-step, and possesses no language for social exchange.
If you step too close to Latron, he might warn you away from him by singing the chorus of the Beatles song, Get Back. But he will not use words—ever—except to parrot other people’s phrases now and then, when asked. The only time he reveals himself is at the piano, composing or playing.
Music provides the twenty-something-year-old musician not only with a tool for his own self-regulation, but a means to experience empathy. While performing, Latron enters a world where he can interact with people, showing awareness of others and their reactions.
The pianist’s friend and long-time mentor, Betsey Zenk Nuisbeh, says that music allows Latron to really care, and to express his feelings in genuine relationship with others. She compares the endings of his performance pieces to a Shakespearean death, going on and on. “Latron is really into how his audience is feeling and how they are interpreting what he is playing,” she says. “He doesn’t just play the notes on the page.”
Cole Von Buchau
When asked the name of his greatest music idol, Cole Van Buchau replies enthusiastically, “Elvis!”
The twenty-two-year-old singer-drummer is also a rock fan and admires musicians including Keith Moon and John Bonham. When Cole got his chance to make his own music video, he was thrilled.
“He totally ran with it,” said his mother, Rose. “He seized the day and loved it. He has incredible emotional stamina.” According to Rose, the experience of making the video has made her son a better musician, and he agrees.
“It made me a better singer,” said Cole. “Because when I sing now I’m starting to sing on key.” He recalls feeling proud when he saw himself performing on the video.
The challenges that reading and writing can pose for Cole simply fade away when he is immersed in his music. Cole’s father Eric is a musician and music teacher. “I like singing with my dad,” says Cole. They work from a list of twelves songs Cole has mastered, including Hound Dog, Devil in Disguise, Young Girl and Jailhouse Rock. Eric rehearses with Cole, who has for six years been drumming in a band called The Woodlanders, using a full, standard kit. “He rehearses six times a week,” explains Eric. “He works hard at his music.”
Cole Von Buchau
Thaddeus Stauder began drawing as a means of communicating his thoughts and feelings. At his school, he eventually learned to make his drawing into animation. His “What Happens When we Jam” animation makes his music video uniquely expressive of who he is. “That was the real meaning of the video for him,” says his mother Kristin.
Thaddaeus loves to sing and is proud of his band, his mom says. Monkeys in the House was named after a song he learned in choir. Zoe Petersen and Sophia Ohanian, who appear in his video, are his former teachers, close friends and fellow band members with whom Thaddeus has a very strong connection. The three practice singing and piano together, and give recitals.
Even with extreme social and communication challenges, Thaddeus loves art, science, animation and physical education at a school. He does not like sitting for prolonged conversation but prefers action, including cooking, surfing and riding his unicycle.
“Thaddeus is a really nice, loveable guy,” says Kristin. “And funny.” One day she asked him and his older sister. ““If you were going to be a vegetable, what would you be?” The sister decided she would be an artichoke, but Thaddeus wanted to be “a cake party!”