Music an outlet for instructor
The young woman teaching the music class had the full attention of everyone in the audience as they followed her every move, shaking their wooden sticks in time to the music just like she did and singing along with her to the lively tune.
“I always love singing,” said the music teacher, Marabeth Capenos-Stiffler.
That day, Marabeth taught her weekly music class at Ganister Station Adult Day Services in Williamsburg, which provides daily supervisory care for people with special needs.
“My guys love absolutely love Marabeth,” said Dana Weber, assistant activities director at Ganister Station. “The majority won’t go to other activities that are scheduled if Marabeth is coming that day.”
What some people may not know about Marabeth is that she is a person with special needs herself. She was diagnosed with autism and what was then called mental retardation, now called intellectual disability, in childhood, said her mother, Kim Capenos. Marabeth couldn’t speak until she was 8 years old, Kim said.
Marabeth’s journey from her diagnosis to teaching music classes is nothing short of miraculous, people who know her said. It’s a credit to her and also to the determination of her mother, said Jody Wallace, who has known the family for several years. Wallace was the director of a “Mommy and Me” class in Tyrone that Kim and Marabeth were in when Marabeth was a toddler.
“The force behind her success is Kim’s dedication and faith in her children, that she has devoted her entire self to being a mother and advocate for those kids,” said Wallace.
Just turning 21, with a birthday on Nov. 19, Marabeth was a typical infant, developing normally, Kim said. As most babies do at 13 months, Marabeth had already started to try to walk and also talk.
All that development came to an abrupt end when she received a round of immunizations, Kim said.
“She let out a high-pitched scream and she kept on screaming,” Kim said. “Within a week of those shots she couldn’t roll over and there was no speech.”
After seeing a succession of doctors, Marabeth was finally correctly diagnosed at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, Kim said. The family was sent home with a bag of information about autism and began years of weekly multi-purpose therapy sessions that lasted for hours, coupled later with special education classes in school. Meanwhile, Kim tried to educate herself about autism and find support groups with limited resources at a time when very little help existed.
Marabeth liked music so Kim turned to programs like Kindermusik to help her develop her movement skills along with her enjoyment of music. But Kindermusik can get expensive, so Kim decided to see if she could create a similar program on her own.
Soon, Kim was doing music sessions in the Tyrone area libraries, churches and other local venues and bringing Marabeth and later her other two daughters, Kashmir Paige Capenos-Paolucci, 12, and Lavender Capenos-Paolucci, 13, who are also autistic. Marabeth would watch Kim teach the classes and sometimes would help Kim pass out instruments and sing the songs, Kim said.
As Marabeth got older, she was able to do classes on her own. That’s why when Kim asked her what she wanted to do when she graduated from school this spring, Marabeth said she wanted to be a preschool teacher.
“Because I love Mommy’s music class,” Marabeth said. “I love to teach new songs.”
Kim said she knows it’s not feasible that Marabeth will be able to graduate from college as a certified teacher, but she said Marabeth could do some parts of what a preschool teacher does, like doing crafts and singing songs. Eventually with the help of a teacher at Marabeth’s school, the NHS School in East Freedom and Altoona, the idea of Marabeth starting her own business teaching music classes evolved, Kim said.
Marabeth began teaching the weekly classes by herself at Ganister Station, which the NHS teacher helped to arrange, plus she’s taught summer music sessions at the Hollidaysburg Area Public Library for children of varying ages. Marabeth also teaches classes at her school.
“Everybody has fun with music, whether it’s the tiniest babies or older people,” Kim said.
Once Marabeth graduates next May, she plans to work on starting her business and call it “Music with Marabeth.” She’ll also have spring and summer sessions at the Hollidaysburg library again, which include not just music, but usually a craft and a snack all coordinate with the music, all of which Marabeth plans in advance.
“She does pick out cute crafts,” Kim said. “And the kids like coloring sheets or she’ll have them do 3-D things with glue sticks. There’s so many things she does, but whatever it is, they all have a lot of fun with it.”
Whether her audience is big or small, Marabeth always manages to educate and entertain them, said Melanie Ramsey, the director of youth and children’s services at the Hollidaysburg library.
“We’ve had anywhere from three to 30 people attend Marabeth’s library programs, and she tailors the activities to the age levels and the interest levels of her audience,” Ramsey said. “Part of the challenge of a public library program is that you never know exactly how many people will come or what their ages will be.”
The format of Marabeth’s music programs are perfect because the children who participate have fun and don’t realize they’re also benefitting by using a variety of intellectual and physical skills, like creativity, following directions and moving big and small muscle groups, Ramsey said.
“The way the program is organized makes it adjustable for any audience, and it’s appropriate to give in many places, not just libraries,” she said. “I appreciate the work it takes to create an enjoyable group musical experience and how much of a difference it can make in people’s lives.”
Ramsey said she’s looking forward to Marabeth teaching more music programs at the library in the future. Other adults who’ve watched Marabeth’s progress like Wallace are also delighted with her progress.
Wallace is the now-retired environmental education specialist known as the “Creature Teacher,” who taught many area young people about wildlife. As she oversaw the Mommy and Me group when Marabeth was about 2 years old, she said at first she didn’t see any issues with the toddler, even though Kim kept saying she thought something was wrong with her daughter.
“She wouldn’t speak or interact with the other kids, but she did use the musical instruments. We used instruments at Mommy and Me,” Wallace said. “I just thought she was slow to develop. Some kids are slower than others to develop.”
Then came the time that Kim asked Wallace to watch Marabeth for a few minutes while Kim ran a quick errand. Kim was only gone for a short time, but Marabeth became absolutely still, not crying like other children might for their mother, but standing still without moving.
“That kid was so upset at being left alone that she just got so rigid and held still and didn’t move a muscle, and she knew me,” Wallace said. “She wasn’t crying, she was not making a sound. She would sometimes make sounds, even though she didn’t talk, when Kim was there, but this time she was totally silent. That’s when I thought maybe there is something going on because most kids if they were upset would have been crying or something.”
Wallace said she kept in touch with the family through Facebook and also would occasionally see them at community events or at libraries through the years. She said she’s thrilled that Marabeth wants to start her own music class business.
“The first time I saw them after I hadn’t seen them for several years, Marabeth came to me, recognized me, greeted me and spoke to me,” Wallace said. “I was so surprised and pleased to interact with her. I remembered that little girl that I’d known back in Mommy and Me. I was so shocked but so happy.”
Marabeth is also scheduled to be a featured speaker at a summer conference next year for the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network, Kim said. The group is part of the state Department of Education Bureau of Special Needs. Part of its mission is to work with teachers and school administrators to help students transition from school to college or employment, according to its website.
Marabeth’s sisters, KashmirPaige and Lavender, said they think their sister may prompt others with special needs to dream bigger.
“I think people now might think that they can do things too that maybe they didn’t think about before like open a business,” KashmirPaige said.
Lavender agreed with her sister that others might follow Marabeth’s example.
“I think Marabeth might make someone else get out and do something that they want to do,” Lavender said. “Marabeth is an inspiring person.”