Maria LaMon was about to head out one Saturday night in late April, when the phone rang in her Oakdale home. She answered it and the man on the other line indicated that they had never met before, but he wanted to help her.
The caller, Jerry Ryan, 37, of Galloway Township, N.J., told LaMon that he was planning a three-day music festival in Atlantic City and had selected her music school to be the recipient of all the funds raised.
Ryan discovered LaMon’s place — the Music Academy for Special Learners in Ronkonkoma — while searching online for schools that cater to kids with autism. The second annual Elephants for Autism music festival, which will take place from May 17-19, was only weeks away and he still had no beneficiary.
Ryan had intended to give the funds to the Ozan Music School in his hometown, where his 10-year-old autistic son, Jeremy, studies piano, but the school closed after superstorm Sandy destroyed owner Faith Ozan’s home and she was forced to move away.
With Ozan’s blessings, Ryan looked for another school to benefit from his event and a Google search led him to LaMon’s place.
“I just had a great feeling, so I called Maria and after speaking with her, I had an even better one,” he said. “Maria really cares about the kids, she's great at what she does and I can just tell by the way she talks that she has just a great heart.”
LaMon, 50, had been teaching piano lessons part-time for most of her life, but while earning her Master’s degree in Special Education, she saw a connection between music and the way people with autism learn.
“Music is all sequences and patterns and kids on the [autism] spectrum learn from sequences and patterns,” she said.
Her school, which opened in 2008, teaches music and art to roughly 65 students between the ages of 4 and 50. With the money she receives through the Autism for Elephants, she will be able to offer free lessons to those who cannot afford them.
With the $5,000 the Ozan Music School received from last year’s festival, it was able to provide 10 scholarships to autistic kids.
LaMon plans to attend the music festival this month with some of her girlfriends. It will feature roughly 120 rock bands on four stages at Le Grand Fromage and The Boneyard Bar and Grill. To attend the performances, attendees must purchase a $10 daily access bracelet. Visit Facebook.com/ElephantsForAutism for more information.
Through his son, Ryan has seen firsthand how music can empower people with autism.
“He's not able to communicate with his words, so he communicates through music and his art,” he said. “This gives him a voice.”