Vivian Hardin, an eighteen-year-old with autism, was sitting in the balcony at First Baptist Church in Jonesboro, Arkansas, 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.
God impressed on Qualls’s 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.
“Tears started rolling down her 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 Hardin, “so I had to be real creative, mostly show and tell.”
After a year of lessons, Hardin 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 eighty 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, and others have cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, multiple sclerosis, are blind, 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 thirty 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 thirty special needs singers took her up on the offer right away, so Qualls enlisted the help of a former student, Lynn Williams, and the two became co-directors of the choir, which now numbers around fifty people.
“It’s incredible what that choir has done,” Qualls said. “They’ve traveled all over Arkansas, and they’ve probably done twenty or thirty 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 girl’s name is Sharon, and she is autistic. She 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 be advocates 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, whose daughter Vivian plays the harp, said, “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. No one should be taken for granted. We all have something to offer.”