Autistic girl finds her voice through opera

Elida's daughter, Stephanie, has a gift.

She can't always express herself well in conversation, but she can when she sings opera. Her voice – pure and clear and strong – was developed at the Therapeutic Art Center.

The Diaz family was among the first to show up when the center opened almost 10 years ago. Stephanie, then 5, had just learned to talk. Diagnosed with moderate to severe autism, she struggled to express herself and would often just mimic what others said.

Five years ago Elida approached one of the music therapy volunteers, Renee Cortez, an opera singer. Elida asked if Cortez could teach her daughter to sing opera. Recently, when Elida knew she was dying, she turned to Cortez again and asked her to continue her work with Stephanie after she was gone.

"Out of all the time (I'd known her) and all her battle with cancer that was the only time I heard her cry," Cortez says.

As Stephanie's voice has grown, so has Stephanie's abilities and her confidence. Where once she didn't speak at all, she now sings. If something hurts, she'll tell her father it hurts.

"Before, she couldn't defend herself. She'd want to say something, but she couldn't," he tells me in Spanish. "...Of all the classes she's taken (at the center) what has helped her most is opera."

The center's executive director, Ana Jimenez-Hami, says before opera, communication with Stephanie typically included the youngster repeating whatever was told to her. Now, Stephanie looks you in the eye and responds to questions.

"I honestly believe that music has truly transformed her life. It's incredible," says Jimenez-Hami. "You can actually have a conversation with her."

Jimenez Hami's original intent was to serve children with disabilities. But that's expanded t

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