Happy Harmony

Don’t try to tell Raven Thuman that she’s disabled. Yes, cerebral palsy confines the Niagara Falls, N.Y., second-grader to a wheelchair and makes it very difficult for her to speak. An aide accompanies her at school, and she navigates a special computer with her eyes. But the 7-year-old doesn’t let her disability slow her down or rob her of joy.

“She is stopped by nothing,” says Joanne Thuman, Raven’s mom. “She is always smiling, always happy. She doesn’t care about her disability. She uses that as a way to draw people to her. She’s just Jesus at Niagara Street Elementary School.”

More than just about anything else, Raven loves music.

“As soon as she and her friends get in the car, they say, ‘turn on the music,’ and they sing as loud as they can,” Joanne says.

“I love music. It makes me happy.”

— Raven

In 2010, Raven’s grandfather sent her a check and the World Vision Gift Catalog as a Christmas gift. He suggested she spend half on herself and the other half helping other children. She used the entire check to buy a wheelchair for another child.

In 2011, another catalog item caught Raven’s eye — musical instruments. For her birthday, Raven asked for donations instead of gifts. She received $200, which she sent to World Vision to buy musical instruments and instruction for children in developing countries whose families could not afford them.

“I love music,” she says. “It makes me happy.”

Gifts like Raven’s and the enthusiasm behind them are helping to change the lives of desperately poor children in San Juan Sacatepéquez, Guatemala, through World Vision’s Children Artistic Development Center. Founded in 2004, the center provides a much-needed outlet for children living in one of the most violent areas of Guatemala state. Gang activity, lack of access to education, and teen pregnancy are among the issues that threaten children there.

Watch Guatemala’s Youth Symphony Orchestra perform the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Learning to play the double bass has set Yolanda’s life on a new path.

“Parents provide as much support as they can, but it turns really hard when they can’t read or write,” says Ruby Boror, a violin teacher at the center. “It is also hard for girls to continue their education since men have the higher priority. [The girls] must help at home doing chores, and many times they are considered [to be] a burden.” These cultural pressures fuel the high drop-out rate for Guatemalan girls, who often marry at an early age.

When the Children Artistic Development Center began, most of the children who auditioned had never held or even seen a musical instrument. “Many parents have never heard about art,” Ruby says.

Among the first to give permission for their child to participate were the parents of Yolanda Mutzús Pirir, who was then 12. Like Raven, Yolanda’s childhood may not be considered “normal” by many people. Yolanda lived in a makeshift house built with a tin roof, plastic sheets, and mud bricks.

“But now, I am part of an orchestra, I’m doing music, and I’m doing what I really like.”

— Yolanda

Yolanda vividly recalls the evaluation process. “A teacher asked us to repeat the rhythm she was making with her hands,” she says. “I was anxious and scared. I wanted to pass, and thank God I didn’t fail. I did it as she told me.”

At the center, Yolanda learned to play the double bass. Eventually, she was selected to play in the Youth Symphony Orchestra. Because of their contribution to hope and peace in the country, in 2008 children in the orchestra were named Peace Ambassadors by the Secretary of Peace of Guatemala.

Today, Yolanda studies literature at San Carlos University. Her dream is to graduate and travel around the world — an entirely different life than she imagined before she picked up an instrument like the ones Raven helped provide with her gift.

“If I had never known music, I would probably have married at the age of 15 or 16,” she says. “But now, I am part of an orchestra, I’m doing music, and I’m doing what I really like.”

Learn other ways to pray for children and families in need around the world.

Yolanda extends her thanks for the opportunity that has transformed her life. “Thanks to the donors, because their contribution helps me and my friends. We were able to change our sad faces, our hunger, and worries into happiness.”

Just like a little girl in a wheelchair in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

— Pat Curry is a journalist and editor based in Augusta, Ga.