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Online choir helps those with special needs find community

Posted at 11:39 AM, May 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-29 11:39:49-04

JUPITER, Fla. — While there have been many struggles in moving to a virtual setting for schooling, gatherings and summer activities, one group that serves people with special needs has found there have been multiple unexpected blessings.

The Exceptional Ensembell HandBell Choir was started in Jupiter years ago. It gathers people with special needs with a music therapist to offer challenges and the joy of socialization.

Co-founders Vicki Silver and Donna Maheady met when their children were in Pre-K special needs classes. Their children are in their early 30s now.

“Sadly, when Lauren and Josh were growing up, those opportunities were pretty limited. For those people with special needs to have music instruction or be part of a band or a choir,” Maheady explained.

The participants have a wide variety of special needs, but they learn and grow as a group.

“They don’t have an opportunity, this population, to interact much with each other or peers in the community. So this has been a rare chance for them to get together. And there’s a sense of camaraderie,” Silver said.

When things were forced to go virtual, the group had to adjust like so many others during the COVID-19 pandemic. The group discovered the setting actually equalized opportunities and made growth possible.

More people were able to join, bringing in participants from across South Florida and even from other states. None of the participants needed an aide to drive with them or sit with them a the class, making way for more people to attend.

Participant Josh lives in a group home, which has strict restrictions due to the coronavirus, and doesn’t have access to internet. He has still found a way to attend. He is able to sit in a car with his caregiver and access wifi through a library parking lot.

“He rings from the car with a big smile on his face,” Silver said.

The group purchased a less expensive set of bells so they could deliver a bell to each person’s home. They were sanitized, placed on porches, and became another bonus to the families.

“Having the bells in their possession opens up opportunities for them to ring when they’re not in class, which is great," Silver explained.

The process of just receiving the bell became a gift.

“The ringers are just so happy to receive their bell, many of our participants, they don’t even get mail,” Maheady explained.
The growth for each participant has also be extraordinary in different ways.

“Our son Josh has always sung more than spoken and so it seems like a path to expressive communication. It’s a way for him to express his lively personality,” explained Silver.

Lauren, too, seems to sing more than she speaks.

“Her verbal skills are so limited, but after she hears these songs, oh my goodness, then she has a song in her heart,” Maheady said.

The virtual setting has worked so well, the group plans to continue at least one virtual class even after the pandemic ends.

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