Music class for kids helps parents, too

About two years ago, Tujuanza “Tee” Buttone and her baby Christopher joined a music class.

They learned new children’s songs, how to play drums and ended every class with homemade sweets.

But, for several months, Buttone quietly wept during the two-hour, weekly class called Wake Up and Sing.

Designed for babies and toddlers with visual impairments, the program weaves musical therapy for children with support therapy for parents.

Buttone solemnly watched other parents hug their children and beam with pride. But Buttone, still gripped with fear over raising a child with special needs, struggled to accept her baby’s rare condition — anophthalmia. Christopher was born without a right eye. His left eye was severely underdeveloped, likely allowing him to see only shadows.

But, as the music played at the Center for the Visually Impaired in Atlanta, the tears went away, little by little.

Christopher lit up in class. He sang, played instruments, danced to the beat. He made new friends. And, as the months passed, Christopher started crawling, talking and walking.

It wasn’t just Christopher growing and changing through music. Buttone also underwent a transformation.

“I had so much fear. I was such a wreck,” said Buttone, who lives in Lithia Springs. “But as I watched Christopher thrive, eventually, there was no more ‘poor me.’ I realized he is doing well, and I needed to keep going.”

Come to grieve, but sing

The Wake Up and Sing program, about two years old, combined two existing programs: a support group for families and a music program for children.

“What we realize is parents need the support to get through the grieving process, but the reason the parents keep coming back is for the music,” said Memri Lerch, a family counselor and one of the leaders of the Wake Up and Sing program.

Christopher was always drawn to music. Even though he is now just 2 years old, he can count and stay on beat.

At a recent class, Christopher gleefully sang: “These are my elbows; this is my nose.”

He tapped his elbow; he touched his nose. Though Christopher couldn’t see what was touching, he learned through music his body parts. He’s also learned his ABCs.

Many of the children in the class face multiple challenges, including Down syndrome and brain trauma that affects vision.

Between songs, Lerch passes around rosemary sprigs, letting each child hold and smell the herb. Music teacher Jacque Howard then plays the sound of a dog barking on the CD. The kids identify the sound and touch a dog puppet.

Lerch encourages parents to talk about their fears and share advice for staying strong and managing low moments as well as fatigue and depression.

Though many of the children enrolled in the music class need to go to a steady stream of doctor appointments and meetings with specialists, the Wake Up and Sing program provides families an upbeat, playgroup atmosphere.

Kristin Boatner, at the class with her 18-month-old daughter, Regan, talks about the many comments she gets from strangers about her baby’s glasses. (Her daughter underwent treatment for eye cancer, and the glasses are worn as a protective measure).

“It’s amazing how many people, complete strangers, look at Regan and her glasses and say, ‘How do you know at her age, she needs glasses?’ ” said Boatner, who lives in Dallas, Ga. “No one says anything about the hearing aid. When I tell them she’s got a prosthetic eye, that usually shuts them up.”

Families in the group share what they call “inchstones” (instead of milestones), as well as concerns about whether their children are falling too far behind other children.

The parents celebrate their kids’ progress, even when they get a bit mischievous.

“People say, ‘Oh wait ’til your child starts walking, they will get into everything. You don’t want to rush it.’ But I saw that Regan walked over to the bookshelf and pulled the books down, and I was so excited she found the bookshelf.”

At first, sorrow, fear

Buttone was 40 when she was pregnant with Christopher.

She decorated his nursery with a sports theme — a football pillow, bedding adorned with baseballs, cute curtains with soccer balls. Since she knew she was having a boy, she said it was a given he would play sports.

Since Buttone was of advanced maternal age, her prenatal testing included an amniocentesis, performed to try to gauge the health of the baby and identify genetic disorders and chromosomal abnormalities. She underwent multiple ultrasounds, but nothing indicated a problem. She had an uneventful pregnancy. Christopher was delivered via C-section. Yet, while Buttone recovered in her room at the hospital and cradled her newborn baby, she knew something was wrong. His eyes were swollen shut and didn’t make any effort to open. As the hours passed, they remained shut, and neither she nor her husband could open them. Doctors soon confirmed her fear: her son was missing an eye. There was no globe, no eye tissue.

“I just cried and cried. I had this idea of how things would be, and I was so devastated,” said Buttone.

The fear was paralyzing. Within days of leaving the hospital, Buttone took her baby to specialists. A doctor suggested she reach out for help at the Center for the Visually Impaired.

Not a handicap

Buttone no longer focuses on Christopher’s limitations. She credits Wake Up and Sing with changing her view of how she sees Christopher.

“We’re skating now,” she said. “I don’t see him as handicapped. He is going to do what he wants to do. I am here to help.”

Christopher is now a big brother to 6-week-old Ethan. He revels in helping take care of the baby. He brushes Ethan’s hair. He helps change baby Ethan’s diaper and give the baby a bath.

In many ways, Christopher is right in step with other children his age. He started walking at 16 months. He has a good vocabulary, and he’s a happy, easy-going child who loves to help around the house.

His love for music is constant.

Never drawn to the TV, Christopher sits intently and listens to his favorite music, including jazz and Christmas music. He also enjoys playing guitar and keyboard.

“I finally realized he is going to learn and to not expect him to be handicapped,” Buttone said.

Who knows if Christopher will ever play ball. But for now, his parents are nurturing his already proven talent. They are looking to buy a baby grand piano.

Christopher’s parents also have opened up a new flooring business in his name: “Christopher Alexander Morgan.” They named the company after their son expecting that, one day, he will take over the family business.

Sings with baby, mommy

At a recent class, Jacque Howard, the music teacher, playing a guitar named “David,” led a song: “We can clap our hands. And stomp our feet and we can clap our hands three times. And we can pat our knees three times.”

Christopher clapped and stomped his feet. He, too, had started bringing his own guitar to class.

He sometimes put down instruments to stretch out his arms and reach for little Ethan (Baby Ethan has no vision problems, but comes to Wake Up and Sing with his mother and Christopher).

“Ethan! Ethan!” he cheered, tapping his baby brother’s cheek. He gave him a kiss.

The next song was for mom and child.

As Howard sang, “Let’s go riding together,” Christopher ran to his mother’s lap.

They sang together:

“I have a little pony, and we like to be together. I like to be together with you.”

Christopher’s mouth was wide open, his smile effusive.

His mom was smiling just as wide, arms wrapped around her son.

Wake Up and Sing

The music program is one of many support services for children with serious visual impairments provided by the Center for the Visually Impaired. CVI is a nonprofit organization in Atlanta, and is Georgia’s largest provider of vision rehabilitation services for people of all ages who are blind or visually impaired. The actual cost of the programs for children and their families can be several thousand dollars a year, but families are only asked to contribute $250 annually (or whatever they can afford).

For more information about Wake Up and Sing, call the Center for the Visually Impaired at 404-875-9011.