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Drumming nonprofit in The Woodlands gives special needs children an outlet

December 19, 2018

Ralph Hicks wasn’t lugging five or six large green trash cans into a room at the South County Community Center in The Woodlands to clean up. He was dragging the cans into the space for a Christmas party he was holding.

As he turned the trash cans upside-down, Hicks explained that the Christmas party is specifically for the Let Them Drum nonprofit, a weekly gathering of both special needs and typical children who want to drum: whether it’s on hand drums or steel drums.

The trash cans were no longer trash cans. They were transformed into drums.

“Our typical kids can come to get volunteer service credit. Our autistic, Down syndrome kids, or whatever disability — they feel more comfortable,” Hicks said.

Hicks started the club about seven years ago, but it was certified as a nonprofit organization a few years ago. The group now has more than 225 children registered, both special needs and typical children.

While there are different levels of drumming — basic hand drumming that works on volume tolerance and playing responsive rhythms, more advanced steel drumming that focuses on learning specific notes and an all-star group that performs at events — the basic principles of letting the children drum at the weekly meetings are the same.

Hicks said that when he started the group, he expected kids and their families to think the drumming was just a fun activity. But now, he knows it’s much more than that.

“These moms are hugging me in tears, saying that they haven’t seen their special needs son smile that long in years. It really hit me, that this is something special,” Hicks said.

For Sonya Bersani, the drumming and resultant joy enables her to see her child connect with others, which is often a difficult task. Bersani has been bringing her non-verbal, autistic son Eric to the group for about a year and a half.

“It’s hard to communicate and connect with him. But when he’s (at the drum group), he’ll catch the beat and echo it. He’s able to communicate in a way that’s unspoken,” Bersani said.

That experience, Bersani said, is an incredible feeling as a mother.

“It’s an amazing feeling to see him and so many other kids with special challenges just getting together and goofing off. It doesn’t matter what their disability is, they’re just accepted,” Bersani said, who also admitted that she drums at the meetings as much as her son does.

Another parent who attends the group, Jennifer Ellestad, brings her 10-year-old autistic son Eli to the group. They’ve only been attending for a few months, but Ellestad said she has noticed a difference in Eli.

“It’s hard to get him involved in something, so it’s nice to see that he can sit and focus on this,” Ellestad said. “He went from being super reluctant to leading the charge every time (Hicks) asks for a volunteer.”

While Hicks teaches music and percussion at Mitchell Intermediate School, and it was there that he began the club, he has a familial connection to this music therapy passion. Hicks said he realized that drumming was important when he was able to use it to connect with his nephew, who has a condition on the autism spectrum.

One day, Hicks drummed on his thighs when his nephew, who wouldn’t make eye contact with him before, repeated the rhythm. The two ended up laughing and having a conversation together, even making eye contact because of the drum beats.

“I thought it was amazing,” Hicks said.

Hicks started researching group drumming and then got in contact with a music therapy professor from Sam Houston State University who helped him develop the program.

There is also a Let Them Drum chapter in Klein, and Hicks said he is looking to expand partnerships into the Cypress area, Salt Lake City and possibly Oklahoma City.

“It’s cool how people come to us. We’ll find a teacher that has special needs in their family or some personal story that will draw them to us,” Hicks said.

Hicks said that for now, though, he’s focusing on improving what the organization already does.

“It’s so much more about the experience than the education,” Hicks said.

jane.stueckemann@chron.com

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