In the Band: Jens' Story
Did you ever make someone's dream come true? Middle school students Nathan Ahmed and Nick Garcia did.
The dream's owner was Jens Nielsen, a California high school student who is a huge fan of his school's band. We don't mean he kind of likes the band. We mean he loves the Porterville Panther Band.
"Jens has been the No. 1 Panther Band fan for years now," his mom, Kate Brackley, said.
One big reason: his older brother Connor plays trombone in the band. So even before Jens was in high school himself, he and his parents attended every band rehearsal, every field practice. They whooped and cheered as Connor and the band marched and made music.
So when Jens started as a freshman at Porterville High, you might guess that he joined the band himself. But there was a pretty big problem with that.
Sixteen-year-old Jens was born with a condition called cerebral palsy, which affects the way his brain talks to the rest of his body. Kids with CP have trouble controlling their muscles and often can't walk, talk, or play like other kids.
Jens needs a walker or a wheelchair to get around. It would have been impossible for him to play an instrument and operate his walker or wheelchair at the same time. And you can't be in the marching band if you can't play your instrument and keep moving along with the band.
"We kind of resolved … that he would be the No. 1 fan," his mom said.
But the story doesn't end there. Todd "Hoss" McNutt, a teacher at nearby Burton Middle School, had an idea. McNutt teaches robotics — the study of how machines can do stuff almost like a person would. McNutt thought: Every band needs someone to clang the cymbals. What if the students in my robotics class could attach a pair of cymbals to a wheelchair?
Two kids in McNutt's class decided to give it a try. With his help, students Nathan Ahmed and Nick Garcia figured out a way to use a bracket to fasten cymbals to a wheelchair. Then they rigged them so Jens could control the cymbals with the push of a button. The button was a switch they pulled out of an old copier machine.
A Team Effort
And they didn't stop there.
Nathan and Nick decided Jens needed a motorized wheelchair, rather than the push-style one he had. But a state-of-the-art power chair costs more than $5,000. So they asked organizations and businesses in town to help.
The local Lions and Rotary clubs agreed to foot the bill for the pricey chair. An upholstery company, meanwhile, volunteered to cover the chair in orange and green leather — the Porterville school colors. And another company embroidered a Panther head — and Jens' initials — on the back of the chair's headrest.
Jens received his extraordinary chair in time for the start of football season.
"When I saw how happy Jens was I thought to myself, this is completely worth it," Nick said. "Just the smile on his face made all the time we put in seem like nothing."
"The first night that boy came down that track, it was incredible to see," McNutt said. "There were 3,000 high school kids and parents crying their eyes out."
It's been a life-changing experience for Jens, his mom said. "It's very hard to describe. The Panther Band has been such a big part of his life. Every essay he has to write, if he can choose the topic, it's about the band."
Jens even wrote a poem dedicated to the memory of Buck Shaffer, the band's inspirational director from 1953–1990. Here are a few lines:
Buck Shaffer had a dream,
His vision was a beautiful scene,
His band was dressed in orange and green,
Time Marches On.
Thanks to his new wheelchair, Jens' life changed off the field, too. In middle school, an aide had to push Jens around in his old chair. But the new chair has given him a new independence. "He just zooms all over campus," his mom said.
The experience left its mark on Nathan and Nick, too, according to McNutt. "True strength is when you reach out and help someone else. What it does for the confidence and self-reliance in the kids that do it, that's the amazing thing."
Nathan agreed, saying he learned something from working so hard to help Jens: "I really made a difference in someone's life."