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Disability Awesome: Alabama Musician Brings Rhythm Into Children’s Lives

Welcome to Disability Awesome. Each week, this post will feature a person or persons with mental and / or physical disabilities who are doing awesome things! As someone with an disability, I love it when others when disabilities do great things!

Post by Carla Davis from Alabama NewsCenter

As a boy, music was everything to Mark Lucas, whose fondest dream was of becoming a “rock star” one day. But seizures that began taking over Lucas’ life during his teen years nearly snuffed out the music.

When a risky brain surgery gave Lucas his life back, he decided to use music to help children and adults with special needs find their own “voice.” Now he is sharing that story with the nation through “Hope Givers,” a new educational documentary series.

Lucas suffers from cortical dysplasia, an epileptic condition that develops before birth.

“I went without oxygen during the birthing process so part of my brain basically died,” he said. “As I got older, I started having worse and worse episodes because the electrical signals would not work properly. I was about 12 or 13 when I would wake up from sleep and not be able to breathe, and my body would lock up.”

As the condition worsened, Lucas said he often had up to 20 seizures a day. “I would be behind a drum set onstage and have a seizure. That wasn’t an uncommon occurrence,” he said. “I considered myself a ticking time bomb.”

In hopes of putting an end to the seizures, Lucas opted to undergo a frontal-lobe resection at age 19, risking never playing music again. Lucas said though the outcome was uncertain, he knew the answer if he did nothing.

Mark Lucas. (contributed)

The operation was successful, though it took more than a year to fully recover, Lucas said.

“I lost a lot of motor and speech skills, but I still had a love for music,” he said. “I slowly started picking up drumsticks and the guitar again. I found the more time I was behind an instrument, the more I developed my motor skills. The amazing thing about your brain is that it’s so plastic that it’s able to rewire itself in a lot of ways.”

Lucas said his goal had been to play the drums professionally and become a songwriter and music producer. He had started down that path by moving to California to write music for Bethel Publishing. That all changed after he successfully used music as a rehabilitation tool in his own life.

“I realized I was very good at connecting with people through music and breaking down musical concepts and making it make sense to folks,” he said. “Why not use this skill in a niche that’s not being served? Why not help people with special needs?”

A graduate of Jacksonville State University with a degree in music, Lucas, who has been seizure-free for nearly 10 years, took that next step. In 2013, he opened the Music Room in Leeds, a community on the outskirts of Birmingham, and established the Music Room Foundation. There, he provides music therapy, lessons and programs for children and adults with physical, mental and emotional disabilities.

Lucas and his team of instructors offer lessons in drums, guitar, ukulele, voice and piano.

But his true passion, Lucas said, is providing “neuro-inclusive” music programs, which he has designed to meet the needs of people with neurological disorders, like autism and Down syndrome, or those who are struggling with cognitive or physical disabilities. Through these programs, Lucas uses music and rhythm to help develop coordination, along with motor and communication skills.

“I go to wherever the people are, whether it’s the Arc of Central Alabama, the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind or nursing homes,” he said. “It’s so fun to get a group of folks to play drums or get them up to dance. They come alive. I always say I bring the party, and they have fun.”

Connor Evans has benefited from the music therapy from Mark Lucas. (contributed)

April Evans said her son, Connor, 16, always looks forward to his weekly music-therapy sessions. Connor, who has autism, has been jamming with Lucas during these sessions for six years.

“I’ve watched Mark with these kids at events,” Evans said. “He knows how to get through to not only Connor but all the kids. Mark is not intimidated by what that child’s need is. He’s phenomenal.”

Evans said Lucas is not only Connor’s therapist, but he has become his “buddy.”

“Connor deals with many issues with his diagnosis that can be depressing, and Mark’s program truly helps him battle some of those feelings,” she said. “Connor may go in there having a bad day and can’t walk out without feeling happy and having a smile on his face. Mark is like an older brother or fun uncle but even cooler.”

This month, Lucas is featured on “Hope Givers,” an eight-part teen mental health and wellness series streaming on PBS LearningMedia. Produced by the Hope Givers organization and distributed by Georgia Public Broadcasting, each episode highlights a person or group who has demonstrated resiliency, while making a positive impact in the community. Lucas’ story is the fifth in the series.

“Mark is a healer,” said Tamlin Hall, executive director and executive producer of “Hope Givers” and show host. “He has lived through epilepsy, and lets these youth know that he’s been through it and he’s OK. They just respond to him. It’s more than a music session, it’s a session of hope.”

Jim Bob Rutlin, left, with Mark Lucas. (contributed)

A first-of-its-kind series, “Hope Givers” is being made available to middle and high schools nationwide through a partnership with the Georgia Department of Education.

The episodes are supported with lesson plans that educators can use in the classroom and feature health and wellness topics, such as addiction, disability awareness, suicide prevention, human trafficking, the challenges of dealing with mental health disorders, and bullying and forgiveness.

Hall founded Hope Givers, a nonprofit production company based in Atlanta, to share meaningful stories that “uplift the human spirit.”

Presbyterian Home for Children CEO Doug Marshall, left, with Mark Lucas. (contributed)

“Telling these stories of hope and resilience in tough times gives more power to youth who are struggling and helps them learn to cope with the challenges they are going through,” Hall said. “Hearing people open up and tell their stories becomes this wonderful pay-it-forward initiative for help and for hope.”

Doug Marshall, president and CEO of the Presbyterian Home for Children and former CFO of United Ability and the Alabama Family Trust, has been a mentor to Lucas, opening doors and introducing him to nonprofits statewide that support people with disabilities.

“I believe in Mark,” Marshall said. “He is incredibly talented and has empathy, passion and a heart for those with disabilities, and the ability to use his skill to impact their lives in a positive way. By sharing my network with him, I saw this as an opportunity to impact the lives of those with disabilities in a bigger way.”

Lucas said he is honored to have the opportunity to tell his story through “Hope Givers.”

“I feel so blessed and feel like I have been given a second chance,” he said. “I feel a moral obligation to give back because it’s unbelievable the way my life has played out. If I didn’t give back, I feel I would be wasting the opportunities given to me. I want to do my best to take what I’ve learned and pay that forward to other people.”

To watch the “Hope Givers” series, visit https://pbslearningmedia.org/collection/hope-givers/.

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