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Music therapy sessions making impact on residents at Belmont-based Holy Angels

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    Holy Angels is at 6600 Wilkinson Blvd, Belmont NC 28012-0710, P.O. Box 710. For information, go to www.HolyAngelsNC.org. Copies of the CD “Do You Hear What I Hear? are available for $10 each at Cherubs Cafe-Holy Angels and Cherubs Candy Bouquet at 23 N. Main St., Belmont.



BELMONT He was a normal 12-year-old boy until a car smashed into his bicycle as he pedaled around an eastern North Carolina community.

Unable to speak or walk, and with only limited movement, he came to Belmont-based Holy Angels, a center for children and adults with severe disabilities, 2 1/2 years ago.

Doctors had low expectations for the boy’s future – until a new music therapy program struck a note.

The boy, whom center officials asked not to be named because of his condition, hadn’t spoken since the accident. But he recently astonished Holy Angels staff and volunteers by lip-synching the word “hello” during a therapy session.

“There were goose bumps on everybody,” said volunteer Lynn Leonard. “It was a red-letter day.”

Later, the boy would go on to mouth all words to a recording of The Temptations’ soul classic, “My Girl.”

As he learns to talk again, his self-confidence has grown to the point he’s feeding himself once more.

The Holy Angels “Music Therapy Suite” rocks these days to the sounds of drums, bells, tambourines, guitars and tubelike “boomwhackers.”

Music brings joy and pleasure to the mostly nonverbal, wheelchair-bound residents. But Holy Angels officials say the program is more about communication, interaction and learning skills that can be used in daily life.

A melody may inspire someone with limited movement to raise a finger – an action that can be remembered and used to lift a fork at meal time.

In the special world of Holy Angels, where most of the 100 residents can’t speak, walk, feed or dress themselves, this is a small but important step.

Officials say music therapy is improving quality of life.

“Their needs are complex, and they rely on us for everything,” said Regina Moody, Holy Angels president and CEO. “We’re trying to figure out what they really want and need. We’re being innovative and cutting-edge for what makes sense for the population we serve.”

Founded in 1956 by the Sisters of Mercy, the private nonprofit Holy Angels provides 24-hour care for children and adults with intellectual development disabilities and fragile medical conditions. Based on individual needs, services may include medical, special education, physical therapy, vocation and daily skills training, speech, horticulture and creative arts therapy.

‘It’s given them a voice’

Basic music has been a part of the program for years, but in January, Holy Angles hired its first professional music therapist, Jessica Gutierrez, 24, of Charlotte.

The therapy sessions are part of the Don & Lynn Leonard Music program, a 2010 memorial named after two longtime volunteers at Holy Angels.

Don Leonard, who died of cancer in 2008, ran a Charlotte heating and air-conditioning business and made music on the side at Holy Angels. Before he died at 61, he asked that donations in his memory be made to Holy Angels, where he was considered the “resident musician.”

Volunteer Lynn Leonard thought of her husband as she watched residents in music therapy “move in ways I’ve never seen them move.”

“It gave me better insight into Don’s love of music,” she said. “I can see this is what gave him joy.”

Before the therapy sessions started, she saw Holy Angels residents as “almost like they were trapped. You didn’t know what they they thought.”

But the new program has created more ways for them to show how they feel.

“It’s given them a voice,” Leonard said. “Not a normal voice, but a voice.”

Gutierrez began working with special needs children when she was a choir member at Gilbert High School near Columbia. She majored in music therapy at Queens University of Charlotte.

At Holy Angels, she comes three times a week to work with groups made up of eight residents. A staff member and volunteer work one-on-one with each individual resident, helping them do such things as move an arm or hold an instrument of choice.

Learning to make choices is an important part of therapy because it builds a sense of independence.

Sessions open and close with “hello” and “goodbye” songs. This helps those residents who learn the two words to use them at the appropriate time.

Gutierrez began noticing improvement in some residents early in the program. Others lagged behind. Only recently did she see a young girl reach up and strum a guitar by herself.

Getting more responses

Musical themes range from jazz to ’50s oldies and The Beatles. Gutierrez includes appropriate holiday material from Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

The oldest resident, 72-year-old Butch Zeigler, was already known as the Holy Angels’ “Piano Man” before the music therapy program began. Although he’s blind and disabled, if he hears a piece of music, he can play it.

Gutierrez said the program has improved Zeigler’s social skills, memory and piano-playing. His first CD is just out: “Do You Hear What I Hear? Christmas Joy from Holy Angels.” Zeigler is on the front cover, dressed in a tux.

Gutierrez looks forward to another year, hoping to bring out even more words, movements and laughter from the Holy Angels residents.

“I use music to get a response,” she said. “I’m not just singing to them. That’s not the point.

“Some think these people have no feelings, but they do. Working with them is awesome.”

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