Marching is Believing

By Nicole Agee, Reporter

SOLON, Iowa - The world is a lot different to Jalen Howsare.

The 14-year old puts his mouthpiece into his trumpet and gets ready to play "Battle Hymn of the Republic" from memory. He pushes air through the horn and presses down on the valves as the familiar song flows out of the bell. If you didn't know Jalen, it would be difficult to tell he's blind.

In late 1999, Jalen's parents, Tom and Kristi Howsare, noticed something was wrong with their son's eyes. "We really didn't think a lot about it," Tom Howsare recalls. "But I said to Kristi, well, maybe we should go in and get it looked at."

Doctors at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics diagnosed the 18-month old with bi-lateral retinoblastoma. He had tumors behind his eyes and in the surrounding fluid. At the time, Dr. Culver Boldt said it was the worst case of retinoblastoma UIHC had seen in decades.

The Howsare's made the difficult choice to remove their son's eyes in order to ensure the cancer never returned. He now has prosthetic eyes and is cancer free.

Jalen has a teacher for braille and a mobility coach who helps Jalen learn to get around the school and ride the bus. He's one of a handful of blind students at Solon, but the only blind student in the band.

"I don't change anything that I do, and the kids just make it happen for Jalen," says band director Desmond Cervantez, who has been working with Jalen since sixth grade. "I thought it would go well, but it's brought everyone closer together even more than before."

Every morning, Jalen assembles his trumpet and waits for someone to take him down to the field. Once he's there, his classmates figure out where he's supposed to go during each song.

"You have to watch out for other people around him," junior Mikaela Lighty explained.

"Whoever's closest to him takes control and takes him to his next spot and leads him by putting their hand on his shoulder," said junior trumpet player, Taylor Walkner.

There's rarely a moment to stand still as band students weave around the 50 yard line.

You need good band mates to help you get through it," says Jalen."I worked on [marching] more and more until I finally had some idea of where I was supposed to go."

His hard work hasn't gone unnoticed.

"People see how hard he works and there are no excuses," said senior Lauren Benzing. "If he can do it, they can do it. I think that motivates people to work hard themselves." Jalen marched with the band for the first time at a pair of competitions in September. Solon played a medley of Beatles songs including, "Yesterday", "Eleanor Rigby" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band".

"I like Sgt. Pepper's; that's our ending song," Jalen said.

"He's fearless," says Cervantez, "he has to be to get out there on the field and put himself out there like that and he's just doing an awesome job."

Cervantez says this experience has built upon the band's mission of giving back. "We really are just a service organization that happens to play music," he says.

The band has adopted a child from Uganda, raised about $1,000 for various charities during last year's holiday show and has sent small groups to play at local hospitals and community locations.

"We're all doing so much more that's so much bigger than ourselves," says junior Aiyana Cervantez.

For Jalen, marching with the band is about living life without limits. He plans to go to college for computer programming and continue to play music.

"Nothing is impossible if you want it enough," he says.

Between now and his high school graduation, Tom and Kristi plan to encourage Jalen to try new things, meet new people and make lifelong friends.

"We want him to go to college and we want him to have that experience, we want him to meet a nice girl, we want him to have everything," says Tom. "God's helped us deal with it. He helps Jalen every day and we're just thankful."

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