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September 17, 2013 > Dream Achievers send message of hope

Dream Achievers send message of hope

By M.J. Laird

Autism sent four young Fremont musicians to China earlier this month, but it was their music that got 1,000 audience members to their feet, arms waving, singing, and applauding for more.

"Five years ago, I could never have written this story," says Kathy Hebert, referring to her son's success with Dream Achievers, a band begun two years ago. Since then, Dream Achievers has performed in more than 50 Bay Area venues with a repertoire that includes jazz/hip hop to Latin beat and classical to cultural.

"What I love most is that people are often floored when they learn our children have autism," says Hebert. "The band can play for hours and no one has a clue; the members are so professional."

Dream Achievers was invited to Kwun Tong Maryknoll College and the China Welfare Institute Children's Palace to build awareness of the capabilities of people with disabilities. In China, people with disabilities are often shunned, says band founder and manager Anna Wang, mother of band saxophonist Lawrence Wang and one the founders of Friends of Children with Special Needs (FCSN) in Fremont. She serves as FCSN Vice President of Local Programs. "There are so many people who need to find hope when they have children with autism," she says.

"We traveled thousands of miles so people could see this talent in our children with autism. We felt like we were ambassadors to a foreign country. Our musicians were a delegation showing what can be achieved."

The trip was funded by a Chinese businessman who had visited FCSN with his autistic son. Seeing the accomplishments of disabled people in art, drama, music, and education programs, he returned home inspired and opened a school for children of day workers, denied enrollment in public schools, and included his son in the educational program.

"For parents of children with autism, they often feel like their dreams for their children are broken. I tell them to change their dream accordingly and they will find love, hope and respect for their children," says Wang.

Dream Achievers began at FCSN when Wang's daughter, Beverly, an accomplished pianist, convinced her mom to let her lead a music camp to help children with autism find a love of music. Now in its seventh year, the camp trains students to play four challenging songs in three half-hour lessons. Students who are quick to catch on to music move on to advanced classes the next year. From the camp, five musical savants emerged to form Dream Achievers. For Wang, the band was an obvious next step to showcase their talent, sending a valuable message to the world.

Lawrence amazed his mother when demonstrated a gift for hearing music just once and being able to perform it, especially since he had been fearful of loud sounds and high pitches most of his life. At age 19 Lawrence sat in FCSN's music class; Wang puts emphasis on "sat" since Lawrence plugged his ears and removed himself from the class. After three half-hour lessons, to the surprise of everyone, he stood up and played two songs that had been taught. Lawrence went on to become a featured soloist at Virtuoso International Flute Ensemble's 2009 Spring Concert. From there, he started lessons in saxophone and within two months, was performing around the Bay Area. Last year, he took another step-not just playing saxophone for Dream Achievers but also singing.

Like Lawrence, percussionist Chris Koraltan, now 22, arrived at music later. He played tambourine, shaker, and conga for his church, then participated in FCSN's music camp and discovered he was capable of even more. In 2011, he bought a digital drum and joined Dream Achievers.

Two female members of the band, pianist Alice Jen, age 14, and keyboardist Phoebe Memmott, age 13, began with music lessons at ages five and six, respectively. Alice, who played by ear before she even spoke her first word, has accrued a number of awards, including first place at Western Regional California State Talent and Performing Arts Competition for three years. She participated in FCSN's music camp in 2006 and began winning awards the next year. Phoebe was the lone member of the band who chose not to travel to China this year since she would have missed her first week of high school.

Back in high school, Gregory Hebert asked for a guitar after strumming one a few times at his grandmother's house. His mom agreed to indulge the request, telling herself: "Okay, I will spend $50, even though I know he will never play it." Kathy Hebert relishes being proved wrong. Gregory never even looked at the tiny book of chords that came with the guitar. Instead he watched You Tube videos, and to his family's amazement, proved to have perfect pitch. When his younger brother repeatedly missed the same note on a trombone one night, Gregory called from the other room, "G-sharp!"

While performing on stage may be the dream of any young musician, the music of Dream Achievers expands beyond their individual personalities to speak to audiences of hope, potential, and new possibilities. Dream Achievers has performed its 100-song repertoire for organizations including Genentech and Rotary, for congressional representatives and weddings, all bookings Wang has arranged through contacts.

"The story is still being written. I can't believe this is happening. It is so wonderful. This band is going places, giving people hope," says Hebert. She has just four words for parents: "Never give up hope."

Dream Achievers is slated to perform at the Moon Festival celebration on September 20 at the Fremont Senior Center and at Newark Days.

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