FGCU musician adapts, wants to inspire
Published: Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, August 21, 2012 15:08
Valerie Baker grabbed two drumsticks and played a timpani set that made the Florida Gulf Coast University music department's walls reverberate with joy. Then the FGCU sophomore walked over to the xylophone, snare drum and bells and delivered more harmonious tunes.
Closing your eyes and listening to the melodies, one can easily forget a cold, hard fact about Baker: She lives with a disorder that deformed the joints in her hands and feet. She has limited range of motion, muscle weakness and needs a wheelchair to get around campus.
"I shouldn't let my disability pull me back from doing anything," Baker said. "And I'm not. I'm having a lot of fun."
A top player on FGCU's percussion ensemble team, the 19-year-old wants to inspire others with disabilities. Baker recently helped launch a mentoring program for students with disabilities through the university's Office of Adaptive Services. She also served as a mentor to nearly 50 people with disabilities last month during the annual Florida Youth Leadership Forum in Tallahassee. The weeklong forum is designed to teach students with a wide range of disabilities about personal leadership.
"I think it's very important for me to share my story with everyone with disabilities," Baker said. "My hope is to inspire future generations to be independent and go to college like me."
Baker was born with the disorder called arthrogryposis. Baker said her parents pushed her to explore extracurricular activities. In the fifth grade, Baker's elementary music teacher encouraged her to join the school's percussion team.
Baker hasn't dropped her percussion sticks yet.
The Tampa native has to do several things differently than able-bodied players. Baker takes a different grip, clutching the sticks between her thumb and index finger. She also has to wear ankle supports above her black Converse shoes so she can walk to different instruments. Baker has to angle the snare drum toward her so she can play.
"As far as her physical disability, it doesn't get in the way at all," said FGCU sophomore Juan Acosta, who also is on the school's percussion ensemble team. "Seeing her play puts things in perspective for me. When I say I don't feel like playing or I'm too tired, I can look at her. It's inspirational every time I see her."
At a recent FGCU audition, Baker rode her black wheelchair to the music department, grabbed her backpack full of different drumsticks and tuned up the timpani with help of a classmate before playing. Acosta said Baker's outgoing personality has helped bring the percussion team together.
Baker credits YLF for creating her outgoing personality and helping her make the choice to live away from home for college. Since YLF began 13 years ago, more than 500 students across Florida have traveled to Tallahassee with hopes of cultivating leadership, citizenship and social skills. The event is hosted by The Able Trust, a statewide nonprofit organization.
"One of our goals of The Able Trust is to ensure that young people with disabilities have the skills and confidence they need to pursue college or a position in the workforce after high school," said Dr. Susanne Homant, president and CEO of The Able Trust.
With an expected graduation from FGCU in 2015, Baker is majoring in psychology with a minor in music and hopes to pursue a master's degree in music therapy. Ultimately, she would like to conduct research on the affects of music on the cognitive development of people with disabilities.
"I want to help others," Baker said.