Salsa for Rafael

Rafael San Gabriel: Latin music is his therapy

By Cristina DC Pastor

A death in the family would, in a strange kind of way, put the swing back into Mary Jane San Gabriel’s life. Also the cha cha, the merengue and the salsa.

Her U.S.-based sister passed away in 2005. From Singapore, this chemical engineer rushed to New Jersey to take on the responsibility of raising her two nephews, Alfonso and Rafael, a young teen with special needs. Mary Jane filed for adoption and took up nursing to learn more about caring for an autistic child.

For her master’s program, her research focused on autism and therapeutic interventions via music. Doing workshops with children with disabilities led to the creation in 2009 of the nonprofit dance workshop NJ Dancin’ Dreams to benefit special needs kids.

“Rafael is OK,” she said of her adopted son, now 19. He goes to a special education school in Montclair and is quite functional: He can cook rice, bathe himself, clean the house, do the laundry.

On the other hand, he is incapable of detecting any sense of danger. He has occasional severe anxiety. When this is triggered, he could run into a moving vehicle or jump out of window, warned Mary Jane. He has two New Jersey State-appointed aides who keep an eye on him – as he is being transported to school and while he is in the school premises. When Rafael is returned home at 3 p.m., Mary Jane resumes her care.

Rafael is also what some would call a ‘Rain Man,’ the savant-genius Dustin Hoffman character in the film. As described by Mary Jane, “He was speaking at a young age and reading the newspaper at 2. Tell him a date, say, April 12, 1998, and he will tell you what day that was.”

When Rafael reaches the age of 21, the state terminates its support. “I’m on my own,” she said with a shrug.

Dancin’ Dreams was created to help parents and caregivers like Mary Jane deal with the stress and difficulty of living with a child diagnosed with autism. For three years now, the nonprofit has been holding workshops led by musicians and special education teachers who teach them how to play instruments, dance and to develop social skills. This year, 25 students from 5 to 21 years old attend sessions for free. Rafael is one of them.

“The benefits of music and dance therapies in children and young adults afflicted with autism and autism spectrum disorders are well documented,” she said. “When an autistic child listens and moves to music, the process of repetition and sequencing improves cognitive functions. Surprisingly, many autistic children behave better and communicate more efficiently.”

Rafael, who usually screams at the sight of insects, becomes the musically gifted who plays lively tunes on the piano.

“If he hears music, any kind of music, he can play it on the piano,” said Mary Jane.

When she organized the first New Jersey International Salsa Congress in 2009, Mary Jane recalled, “I cried on stage and my audience cried with me.” She said the gathering of special needs children and their families for a weekend of Latin ballroom dancing and music “touched my heart.” The party was attended by about 4,000 people. The second dancing congress was held April 28 at a bugger venue, the Meadowlands Expo Center in Secaucus, which accommodated as many as 6,000 people.

“He is my inspiration,” Mary Jane said of her son.

NJ Dancin’ Dreams will be at the following locations: June 2: 2nd Annual Hope Ball at the Sheraton Meadowlands, New Jersey; June 3: Philippine Independence Day Parade, New York; June 9: Pidci Ball, New York; and June 10: Philippine Day Organizing Council Parade in Passaic, New Jersey.

With Rafael at a family party.

Students and teachers make music together

One Comment

  1. Randy O. wrote: is the perfect blog for anyone who wants to know about this subject. You know a lot it’s practically difficult to argue with you (not that I really would want). You absolutely set a whole new spin on a topic that’s been written about for years. Fantastic, just excellent!

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