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taking center stage
Story by Audrey Hanes • Photo by Amy Long

Five years ago, well-known local harpist Pat Qualls had a dream to create a new outlet for artistic expression.

Today, the annual Special Needs Music Program she helped foster serves as a way for children and adults with special needs to showcase their musical and artistic talent in front of a supportive audience.

Qualls has been involved with music her whole life. When she was 12 years old, her grandfather gave her a piano he originally bought for Qualls’ aunt during the Great Depression, which began her study of the instrument and desire to teach others to play. She went on to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Arkansas State University in music education, after which she returned to
her alma mater in Monette where she served as the high school’s choir director for 16 years. By the time she retired in 1997, Qualls had also been a high school girls basketball coach, served a four year term as the mayor of Lake City, owned her own piano and voice studio and served as a longtime Arkansas Public Service Commissioner in Little Rock.

Since moving back to Jonesboro in 2001, Qualls has continued to spread her love for music by continuing to give harp and piano lessons. She says her dream of learning to play the harp was realized when she had the opportunity to study the instrument as an adult. Another one of her dreams – to put on a concert for children and adults with special needs – was also realized as an adult, and it all
started with one of her students, Vivian Hardin, who is autistic.

Qualls first met Vivian at Central Baptist Church. After Qualls played her harp during a service one Sunday morning, Vivian and her mother, Teresa, came down to talk to her after Vivian referred to the sounds as angel music. Several weeks later, Qualls was in the balcony running a camera for the service and happened to be near the Hardin family.

“All during the service, a small voice kept saying to me, ‘You need to work with Vivian. You need to teach Vivian to play the harp,’” said Qualls. “After the service, I turned to Teresa and said, ‘I think I need to teach your daughter to play the harp.’ She started crying and said she had been praying for something special to come along in Vivian’s life. Her first lesson was more than five
years ago. I have given her weekly lessons ever since then.”

Teresa says the music lessons have had a tremendous impact on Vivian’s life, from allowing her to have better social skills to boosting her self-confidence.

“The fact that such a talented lady took time for my daughter has been such a blessing,” said Teresa. “Pat has impacted her life on so many levels. Vivian has a special skill that no one but God could give her and only Pat could cultivate. Playing the harp gives Vivian something to talk about to her friends and people she initially meets. Vivian’s social skills are low and she has a difficult time with
conversation, but when she is quizzed about her harp playing, she lights up with pride. That’s a really big deal for her, to be able to have an identity as a musician.”

As the two continued to work together, Vivian’s love for playing the harp inspired Qualls to create a special concert where Vivian and other talented musicians with special needs could share their gifts.“After a year of teaching Vivian, I just had a vision that we needed to do a program with musicians with special needs,” said Qualls. “… Many people were skeptical, but it was a huge success. From there, it’s just blossomed and grown each year.”

The first Special Needs Music Program, officially titled “The Role of Music in the Lives of Special Needs Children & Adults,” took place in 2010 at Arkansas State University’s Riceland Hall and had five performers: Vivian, who played the harp; Treyson Stafford, who played the violin and drums; Rees Hogue, who played the drums and provided artwork; Jack Broadaway, who played the clarinet; and
Dena Mueller, who sang during the program.

“To say that the 2010 program was a success is an understatement,” said Qualls. “The audience was moved, inspired, entertained and educated about (those) with special needs and how music plays a very important role in their lives.” Teresa says that the opportunity to perform is something that Vivian looks forward to each year.

“She is so proud of her accomplishment,” said Teresa. “Thanks to Pat, she has an identity. She loves the recognition when she plays and when people compliment her on her performances. The harp and the recognition she received built her confidence to do more. She recently played for the Holy Angels Convent. She loves playing for special occasions, benefits and friends.”

Since that first concert, the program has grown into an annual event that includes educational guest speakers, many musicians, a choir, artists and a dance group, which is new to the 2014 program.

“Education has always been an important part of the program,” said Qualls. “The first three years, each participant had a parent who spoke about their child’s disability and the important role music played in their lives. Each child’s teacher also spoke about the teaching methods used to teach that child.

“… This year, we will have Ruth Treadway, a deaf interpreter, talk about how the deaf and hearing impaired can respond to and participate in music. We also have Susan Smith, the founder of Gravel Road Goodies, who will speak about her business that offers specialty foods and custom-made household items and how it supports adults with special needs.”

Additional speakers for this year’s concert are Mayor Harold Perrin, who will give an update on the Miracle League of Jonesboro’s playground, and keynote speaker Dr. Charles Welch, ASU System President. Trey Stafford will emcee the event. Vivian, Mueller and the Stafford triplets featuring Treyson will all return to the program for the fifth consecutive year.

Additional performers for the 2014 concert are returning vocalist Joey Havdala, returning pianist Darren Lane, returning vocalist Jonathan Lansford, vocalist and scholarship winner Justin Phillips, vocalist and scholarship winner Gavin Grubbs and violinist Parker McCarthy. Lansford will also participate along with Michael Statts and Justin Jones as a part of The Thrillin Three, a vocal trio that
will be performing for the fourth year.

Also returning for the 2014 music program is the Overcomers Choir, a Central Baptist Church special ministry that is open to special needs adults of all ages from all over Jonesboro. There are currently 45 members in the choir, which Qualls co-directs with Lynn Williams.

“That has been a really rewarding experience,” said Qualls of working with the choir. “I discovered them after their first program. I sat there in awe, teary eyed, so I invited them to participate in the Special Needs Music Program in its second year. In September 2012, I felt called to work with them outside of their
Sunday service with my background as a choir director.”

Since then, Qualls and Williams have rehearsed with the group every Wednesday night. Qualls says the choir’s members work hard to improve their singing skills, enjoy performing and have risen to the high expectations of their choral directors.

New to the 2014 Special Needs Music Program is a group of 13 dancers from a nonprofit organization based in Central Arkansas called I CAN! Dance. The organization, founded by Julie Mayberry, strives to expose children with special needs in Arkansas to the art of dance.

The show’s grand finale each year is a much-anticipated number called “Don’t Stop the Music.” During this final song, the concert’s participants, speakers and those involved with the production are invited to join the members of Jonesboro’s Treble Clef Club onstage.

Four interpreters for the deaf will also participate. Qualls is a former president and current vice president, publicity chair and program chair for the Treble Clef Club and says that it has tremendously supported the Special Needs Music Program year after year.

Another special aspect of the yearly program is its art show. Teresa is in charge of the display, which features artwork from local artists with special needs. Each artist donates a piece to be sold in a silent auction, with proceeds benefitting a charitable organization of their choosing. This year’s artists are Hogue, Vivian, Johnny Black, Jacob Hall, Chuckie Crain, Jessica Armstrong and Jeremiah Knight.

“Every artist wants to be loved, recognized and valued,” said Teresa. “This program gives them a chance to have an audience to view and respect their creative skills. This one moment in their lives has the potential to fuel them forward to so many other opportunities. Some of these artists sell their art at local venues. Because of this program, some now have a portfolio to show, business cards and brochures, giving them a shot of positive self-esteem.”

Following the 2014 Special Needs Music Program, the art will go on a tour that begins at the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock, where it will stay from June through August. From there, it will be displayed in the State Capitol building from September through October, Jonesboro’s United Cerebral Palsy Office for the month of November and the Jonesboro Sun Gallery in December.

“We’ve seen people come to this event and be amazed at how truly rewarding and filling of the heart it is,” said Teresa of the annual program. “We believe every person leaves the 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.”

Qualls said that none of it would be possible without the support of the program’s many generous sponsors and scholarship donors, which include the Jonesboro A&P Commission, the ASU College of Nursing & Health Professions, John Bolding, the Northeast Arkansas Council of United Cerebral Palsy, the
Jack Havdala family, Scott Hempling and Maggie Flaherty, Guy’s Tuxedo Shop, Bob Grisham, the Treble Clef Club and Alan, Lesia and Emily Oldman.

Already, the program has grown from 200 attendees its first year to close to 600 people in 2013.

“It is very inspiring and heartwarming,” said Qualls. “Our sponsors and scholarships continue to grow every year. The community is very supportive of what we’re doing. My dream is to walk out and see Riceland Hall filled to capacity. …

“As far as I know, there is nobody else in Arkansas doing anything of this magnitude and probably not across the U.S. I think we can be a model for other organizations to do something like this.”

Qualls says that her involvement with the program and the many special needs musicians and artists it allows to showcase their God-given talents is something that means the world to her.“I have been involved in music instruction for over 50 years,” said Qualls. “ I have been responsible for producing hundreds of varied musical programs. I can say, without reservation, that working with musicians with special needs has been the most rewarding and fulfilling musical experience of my life.”

The 2014 Special Needs Music Program will take place on April 25 at ASU’s Riceland Hall. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the concert will begin at 7 p.m. The program is free to the public. For more information, contact Qualls at (501) 416-8897 or pqharp@gmail.com.