Drummer teaches kids with autism the magic of music
Local musician Jay DiBella sings and plays drums for his blues band. It’s his passion. But he has another passion, too. DiBella is using his musical talents to help children with autism express themselves through music in the Speak Through the Arts program. When DiBella heard about the Speak Through the Arts program on The Parker Foundation for Autism and Child Development’s Facebook page, he reached out to Melissa Parker, the nonprofit’s co-founder, and suggested holding a drum clinic.
They collaborated and the first drum clinic was held this past December at the Wickham Park Community Center in Melbourne. That day, DiBella helped 15 children ages 5-12 assemble a “cajon,” a Peruvian drum that is sat on while played. He also taught them percussion basics using drum pads provided by the nonprofit, and specially designed rhythm sticks that were donated by Janine Chimera, a local music therapist.
“This is about these kids having their eyes opened to music and understanding that they can make sounds that make sense by beating on a plywood box,” DiBella said. The children learned to play “Little Drummer Boy” on their practice pads while DiBella played the guitar and sang with them. The clinic wrapped with DiBella breaking in the new “cajon” during individual jam sessions with each child.
“Now, my girls practice tapping their drumsticks on different objects around the house and really listen to the different sounds they can make, just like the different parts of the ‘cajon,’ ” Winters said.
The event had a profound impact on DiBella as well. Certain moments moved him, such as when a tearful parent watched her children use a screwdriver for the first time. He felt a sense of pride as he saw parents react to their children grasping the concepts of making sounds and replicating rhythms.
“Take a minute and give back and you might just end up being the one who receives the most,” DiBella said.
The Speak Through the Arts program is designed to help families affected by autism promote creativity, self-expression and accomplishment through exploring the arts in a sensory sensitive environment. The program also helps children develop fine and gross motor skills and increase their social and communication skills one artistic activity at a time.
“You can feel the magic,” said Julia Tosi, the nonprofit’s assistant director. “Music is such a powerful method of communication for kids that have problems communicating.”
The Parker Foundation for Autism and Child Development’s goal is to build relationships within the community to help families affected by autism to have educational and recreational opportunities. Parker realized this need wasn’t being met when she tried to find engaging community activities for her 9-year-old son.
“Brevard has a lot of resources and is working really hard for children with autism, but there were still needs,” Parker said.
Last January, Parker co-founded the nonprofit to create opportunities for children with autism to develop self-confidence, socialize and grow relationships. She knows that the arts speak to children and wants to provide them with experiences to help them discover new ways to communicate.
Many of the children have never played an instrument or put on a uniform, but are now getting a chance to play tee-ball, learn gymnastics and play the drums, thanks to the nonprofit. In the process, families are creating happy memories and parents are connecting with other parents.
“You see relief in their eyes, too,” Parker said.
All of the nonprofit’s programs are free and designed using a family-centered model that encourages all family members to participate during events. Programs include DiBella’s music clinics, Little League, tee-ball, gymnastics, line dancing, yoga and soccer. Tennis and swimming programs are being developed and Parker hopes to one day offer a basketball program.
The non-profit plans to hold art and music clinics twice a month on a rotating basis. Parker searches for projects that are interactive and can be taken home. This spring, the children will build birdhouses using “Build and Grow” projects that were donated by the home improvement retailer, Lowe’s.
Parker has been taken aback by the support and feedback the nonprofit has received in the past year. She hopes to inspire others to step up and develop programs to meet needs in their own communities.
“Don’t wait for resources to happen for your child,” Parker said.
After the music clinic, DiBella insulated and tuned the “cajon” and brought it to Florida Discount Music, a music store located in Melbourne. He attached a flier that described the “cajon’s” creation. It sold on Dec. 30 to a local musician, and the proceeds benefited The Parker Foundation for Autism and Child Development.
“The instrument, which started out as an idea and was built by kids, some that had never used a screwdriver before, is now being used by someone who performs all over the county,” DiBella said.
Using repurposed materials, DiBella crafts “cajons” and a variety of other musical instruments and music-inspired artwork. Some of his pieces are available for sale on his Facebook page: Jay’s Castaway Creations.
DiBella uses his handmade instruments when performing at venues throughout South Brevard. The singer, drummer and guitarist co-hosts a jam session with other local musicians and plays solo acoustic performances in restaurants across his home town.
Every quarter, the Speak Through the Arts program will feature DiBella’s guitar and drum clinics because he firmly believes that music speaks, even when we can’t find the words.