While we were watching Elian
March 15 2001 by Stan Dotson , Special to the Recorder

While we were watching Elian | Friday, March 16, 2001

Friday, March 16, 2001

While we were watching Elian

By Stan Dotson Special to the Recorder While daily news accounts of the plight of the young Cuban boy, Elian Gonzalez, riveted the attention of our nation, the plight of several other Cuban children riveted the attention of one Mars Hill College (MHC) student. While Elian became a household name in our country, other names became familiar to Mariadela Perez-Albela: names like Pepe, Claudia, Danedis, Dagmar, Reinar and Noralbis. These were children in the remote Cuban village of Piedrecitas who would change her life.

Mariadela, who graduated from Mars Hill in 2000, first visited Cuba in 1999 as part of a health care friendship tour organized by MHC Chaplain Paula Dempsey.

Dempsey had helped Mars Hill Baptist Church form a partner church relationship with a Baptist church in Piedrecitas several years earlier. That partnership resulted in some of the Cuban Baptists coming to Mars Hill, as well as Mars Hill church members and MHC student groups visiting there. Dempsey recruited Mariadela to go on this trip to be a translator for a group of 10 students and faculty members.

Mariadela came to Mars Hill from Lima, Peru, to study music as a voice major. She had dreams of one day singing on Broadway, but she wasn't quite sure what her vocational path would be. She went to Cuba prepared to translate and to help lead some singing in the church, but she was not at all prepared for the kind of impact the children of Cuba would have on her life.

It happened gradually as she saw the children's faces and noticed how they responded to her, but there was a key moment when she really felt "something ignite in her soul."

It happened while she strummed her guitar and led the singing for one of the church celebrations. The children started singing along with their untrained voices, but their hearts were filled with an enthusiasm and a passion that she had never experienced.

Mariadela was making a connection, deeper than any she had made before. The children of this very fragile, vulnerable and impoverished community were sharing a richness of spirit rarely experienced in the United States.

After Mariadela came back to campus, she began working to "decipher that burning fire" the children ignited in her soul.

She talked with faculty and staff members, trying to find a way she could embark on a career path that would nurture her experience in Cuba.

She discovered an opportunity to take an internship in music therapy, where she found what she was looking for, a way to pursue her music and use her gifts to touch people and offer comfort, hope and joy during fragile and frightening times.

Music therapists work with people who are suffering in some way - from illness, disability or grief - and help them work through their suffering through music. Mariadela saw music therapy as a way to connect with the richness of the human spirit, which often shows up in the most vulnerable situations.

"I realize now that what happened at that service with the children in Piedrecitas was music therapy - definitely," Mariadela said. "When I was singing with the children, I don't know if it was the looks on their faces or their voices, but I could tell it was therapeutic, for them and for me."

Mariadela said that even though the children are not disabled, they have their broken places, just as all people do. During the singing she felt that she and the children were reaching out to each other.

"The experience with the children helped me discover ways I can use music that feels very natural for me, as natural as performing," she said. "When I am on stage performing, I am drawing on what is inside of me; I am into myself, trying to achieve excellence and create the character who will connect with the audience. But in music therapy, it is not so much about me, but about them - the people who are suffering - and my challenge is to reach out and touch what is happening inside them, to make a deeper connection than I can make simply by performing.

"It is not about how good I am, but how meaningful this experience can be for them, and how they can make sense out of their lives through music."

Mariadela made another trip to Cuba after graduation. This month-long trip, sponsored by the North Carolina Baptist Student Union, enabled her to re-visit the site where she first "saw the heavens unfastened and open."

She spent the summer teaching music to the children of Piedrecitas, re-connecting with Pepe, Claudia, Danedis, Dagmar, Reinar and Noralbis, and rekindling the fire in preparation for her next step. She is now enrolled at Florida State University as a graduate student in music therapy.

"It is scary when I look back and see how everything is connected, how everything I've done with my life has prepared me for what I am doing now," Mariadela said. "There is a real feeling of wholeness, like braiding or intertwining a fabric together, so that everything falls into place. It was the trip to Cuba, but it was also the way the Mars Hill community helped me figure out what was happening. Mars Hill is the one place I can point to where it came together, where my life - where everything - really changed."

(EDITOR'S NOTE - Dotson is a 1984 graduate of Mars Hill.)

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3/15/2001 11:00:00 PM by Stan Dotson , Special to the Recorder | with 0 comments
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