Harp's 'angel music' reaches autistic youth

JONESBORO, Ark. (BP) -- Vivian Hardin, an 18-year-old with autism, was sitting in the balcony at First Baptist Church in Jonesboro, Ark., when church member Pat Qualls played the harp during a worship service. Hardin, in awe, whispered to her mother, "angel music."

After the service, Hardin's mother introduced her to Qualls and let her look at the harp. The girl indicated she would love to learn to play.

Vivian Hardin, who has autism and is a member of First Baptist Church in Jonesboro, Ark., learned to play the harp and uses her talent throughout her community.
Photo by Amy Long
God impressed on Qualls' heart in the weeks to follow that she needed to teach Hardin to play the harp, and she shared the thought with the girl's mother, Teresa Hardin.

"Tears started rolling down [Teresa Hardin's] face," Qualls told SBC LIFE, and the mother said she had been praying for something special to interest her daughter.

"She is nonverbal," Qualls said of Vivian Hardin, "so I had to be real creative, mostly show and tell."

After a year of lessons, the autistic teen showed remarkable progress.

"She has an identity in the community. She plays all around town," Qualls said. "She has a goal in life now. Before she started playing the harp, when company would come [to her home] she would retreat to the library. After she learned to play the harp, when people would come in, she would say, 'Hi. I'm Vivian. Who are you? I can play the harp. Would you like to hear me play the harp?' It has increased her social and verbal skills."

Hardin's success inspired Qualls, a retired high school choir director and piano teacher, to start an annual musical presentation featuring special needs students. She began five years ago with four students, and this past spring more than 80 special needs musicians showcased their talent in a performance hall on the campus of Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.

Some of the presenters are autistic or blind; have cerebral palsy, Down syndrome or multiple sclerosis; or struggle with various emotional or mental illnesses or disorders. Qualls considers the program a Special Olympics for the arts.

Most of the presenters are part of the Overcomers choir, a ministry of Central Baptist Church in Jonesboro. The church has had a vibrant special needs ministry for about 30 years, and a few years ago Qualls visited their Sunday morning gathering.

"I sat in that service all emotional because I was so moved by them and what they were doing," Qualls said, recounting that the group sang choruses and heard a sermon.

In addition to inviting the group to sing in her annual music program, Qualls volunteered to start the Overcomers choir at the church. About 30 special needs singers took her up on the offer right away, so Qualls enlisted the help of former student Lynn Williams. The two now co-direct the choir of about 50 members.

"It's incredible what that choir has done," Qualls said. "They've traveled all over Arkansas, and they've probably done 20 or 30 performances, and they have been a role model and encouragement for other churches to start a special needs ministry."

Success stories from the choir abound.

One autistic girl named Sharon had multiple strokes when she was born, leaving her with a muscle disorder, Qualls said.

"This is what music can do and how it can draw you in: When we first started, Sharon would always sit at the back of the room and never interacted," Qualls said. Slowly, Sharon began to talk with other choir members, and now she sits at the front of the room. "She's a lot more social," Qualls said.

Sharon recently returned from a trip to Kansas where she and some others from Central Baptist attended a conference to learn how to advocate on behalf of people with special needs.

Another choir member, Carol, has an exceptional singing voice, Qualls said. The Overcomers choir gives its members an opportunity to win scholarships sponsored by individuals and organizations in the community, and Qualls urged Carol to apply for a vocal scholarship.

"She got a scholarship, and I can't tell you what that's done for her self-esteem and for her self-confidence," Qualls said. "She's doing really well."

Carol told Qualls she enjoys the Overcomers choir because she feels like she is giving something back to people who have invested in her.

About 20 percent of Americans struggle with some type of mental, emotional or physical special need, Qualls said, so any church in any community could start a similar ministry by identifying people with special needs and nurturing their talent.

"Music can produce positive effects in the life of a special needs person that medicine cannot," Qualls said, adding that even for those who are not musically inclined, music is soothing.

Teresa Hardin said the music program increases awareness of the worth of all human beings.

"We believe every person leaves the [annual music] program with a better knowledge of how creative and wonderful each of us are, disability or not," she said. "No one should be taken for granted. We all have something to offer."

Erin Roach is a writer in Nashville. This article first appeared in SBC LIFE, journal of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee.
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