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Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016

Kids using magic as therapy

Monday, October 29, 2001

Gary Howard, an amateur magician, helps Ashley Grissom do a magic trick at Kenny Rogers Children's Center.
SIKESTON - The little magician smiled and talked to his audience about the upcoming illusion he would create "right before their eyes." With a slight movement of his hands, the dollar disappeared.

It's magic!

But the real magic is the manipulative skill the youngster has developed. For you see this pint-sized magician is one of the children receiving therapy at the Kenny Rogers Children's Center.

And he isn't the only magician who is creating special effects at the center. Almost each week youngsters gather to practice their sleight of hand as part of their therapy.

The wizard behind the group of little magicians is Gary Howard, an amateur magician and Sikeston native. A fan of magician David Copperfield, Howard explained he was reading biographical material when he learned of Copperfield's work with children's therapy.

While performing for children in a hospital, Copperfield taught a youngster a magic trick. Within a few minutes the child mastered the trick and also began using a hand, which was previously immobile.

The internationally-known performer eventually developed Project Magic combining magic and physical therapy. Howard could see the possibilities this program could offer locally.

"I love magic and I've been involved with the Children's Center for years. I couldn't think of a better way to combine my two loves," said Howard.

First he contacted Copperfield's organization which provides information about starting Project Magic programs. There were details on everything from beginning tricks to the physical therapy benefits of the various movements.

Encouraged, Howard developed a demonstration which he first presented to Chuck Martin, the center's director, then to the physical therapists and the staff.

" It was fun performing these effects and seeing the reaction on Chuck and the staff's faces," said Howard. Howard had a much tougher audience next - the children.

The first effect he introduced the youngsters to involved a rubber band. "When they saw it, they wanted to know how to do it. They picked it up very fast," recalled Howard about his first magical gathering in August.

The classes work not only on developing fine motor skills through the slight-of-hand manipulation but also on socialization and communication skills as each child is encouraged to develop a rapport with the audience. All of the effects use everyday objects, such as a rubberband, dollar bill, a playing card, piece of rope or paperclip. In his classes Howard breaks down each effect step-by-step, working with the group or individuals as needed.

As each trick is mastered, Howard adds another so the youngsters can build a series of tricks to amaze family and friends.

"We want to adapt the tricks to the abilities of the child, to give them self-confidence. It maybe the simplest of tricks but in the hands of some it is a small miracle," said Howard

While working primarily with the children, Howard maintains constant feedback with the therapists. After all, he points out, it is the therapist who knows the child's limitations and skills needed.

The staff, including the director, are watching the class develop at the Kenny Rogers Children's Center. "I think there is great potential for this program," said Martin. "What we have seen has been very promising. The greatest benefits is one we really weren't expecting - - peer acceptance."

The center's director explained that all of sudden youngsters are able to perform a magic trick and other children are asking them how to do it. "That is power. That is the child having people coming to them and it elevates their self-esteem."

The fact that Howard developed the idea and approached the Center, also pleases Martin. He said he would like to see others with ideas and abilities share them with the children at the Center.

"I think magic is a wonderful avenue. We try to be forward thinking and if this proves to cutting edge and have a real benefit we will want to do it," said Martin.

Howard admits to being surprised by how well his magic students are doing. "We all have this misconception they aren't able to do certain things, sometimes they even think they can't do it" he said. "But you tell them they can and you work with them and when they finally do it and you see the expression on their faces that to me, that one moment, makes it all worth while."

And while many magicians closely guard their secrets, Howard is more then willing to share what he knows. In addition to meeting with his little magicians, Howard is developing a workbook, with some 100 effects, for use by the Children's Center therapists. With the center serving over 300 kids with a variety of disabilities and developmental delays, Howard explained the workbook could be the basis for physical therapy magic when he is not available.

"If all of them turn out to be magicians I would be happy," said Howard. "They could steal the show!"