You should see Cameron Jones’ face light up when you mention Ariana Grande.
You should see his head bob when he plays the drums.
You should see his sweet, broad grin and enthusiastic thumbs-up when his friends tell him what a good job he’s done.
Music brings him joy.
Well, Cameron’s pretty joyful in general. An 18-year-old Dreher High School student with special needs, Cameron never meets a stranger, never gets nervous, never backs down from adventure.
On Tuesday night, with his eyebrows raised in excitement and a proud smile spread across his face, Cameron bloomed and beamed on stage at Dreher. He stood surrounded by the school's concert band and new friends who have taken him and three of his special-needs classmates under their wings.
Students like Cameron don’t get a lot of those “normal” high school experiences like performing in the band, playing on a sports team or getting academic awards, said Rebecca Smith-Hill, who teaches Cameron in her class of students with special needs that range from autism to Down syndrome to unspecified intellectual disabilities.
"They've had this disability their whole life, and their parents have come to accept it as a reality," Smith-Hill said.
But a new program at Dreher is drawing special-needs students into the world of mainstream high school activity and drawing out their talents and potential through the power of music.
For the past year, Cameron, Ebony Bamberg, Patrick Young and Nick Osborne, all students in Smith-Hill’s class, have met after school with student mentors from the Dreher band program to learn and practice musical skills. At the end of each semester, they join their peers on stage to perform a single song.
Cameron and Patrick take on the drums; Ebony proudly commands the marimba (it’s similar to a xylophone); and Nick makes an ambitious (albeit, fairly squeaky) go at the saxophone.
“It makes it as typical a high school experience as it can be," Smith-Hill said. "It's really cool to see their personalities come out through being on the stage and being in the spotlight. ... It's kind of a magical little moment where everybody feels like everybody's the same in the world."
United Sound is a national program at schools in 19 states connecting special-needs students with music and their peers, with the goal of giving all students access to a meaningful music education. Dreher is the only school in South Carolina to offer the program.
“Everybody should have access to music, and music is for everybody,” said Dreher band director Christopher Lee, who pushed to bring the United Sound program to the Columbia school. Watching the students play and interact with one another is "pure joy," he said. "Like, pure."
Dreher's United Sound chapter started last fall with four students with special needs and about a dozen student mentors from the Dreher band program. Lee and Smith-Hill hope to add at least two or three new musicians next year, and more band students are lined up waiting to become mentors, Lee said.
Mentoring the United Sound students has reminded Dreher band students of the enthusiasm they sometimes forget to feel when they play their instruments, they said.
"It's a really big payoff," said Addy Lee, the band director's 14-year-old daughter, who plays percussion and mentors Ebony. "They're just so happy, and they feel so accomplished. It's just so great to see that."
Cameron’s grandmother wasn’t sure what he could achieve. He was a withdrawn and silent child, unable to express even his basic wants. But he's grown far from that in recent years.
"You just don't know how far they can go. Cameron has far exceeded anything I expected," Cynthia Jones said of her oldest grandson, who will graduate high school next month and who once didn't speak and now can't be silenced. "There's no stopping him, I don't think. ... He still has limitations. He'll always have them. But my outlook for him is so much brighter."
As he's grown, music has brought Cameron calm and comfort. When he's not playing video games, watching wrestling matches on TV with his siblings or helping his grandmother with chores, he's probably bobbing his head — his whole body, really — to a country music song, anything by Ariana Grande or his favorite song, Will Smith's "Candy." (But none of "that rap," his grandmother says.)
Music is a bonding point for the whole family — for Cynthia, who played the bass clarinet in her own high school band; for most of Cameron's six siblings, who sing and play bass, guitar, cello and violin; even their pet bird, whose name is usually "Bird, shut up!" the matriarch jokes.
For people with intellectual disabilities, music is especially recognized as a therapeutic tool for communication and expression, concentration and motivation, social bonding and for its effect on brain functioning.
Its effect on Cameron, Ebony, Patrick and Nick is visible and beautiful. Their faces express an array of emotions, from intensity to joy to pride when they lay hands on their instruments and feel the music move through them.
In their black and white suits and dress, they blended in with the rest of the Dreher band Tuesday night, performing John Legend's "Love Me Now." At the same time, they stood out; it must have been the joy.
Cynthia Jones, who had danced and conducted from her seat throughout Tuesday night's band concert, stilledwhen Cameron took the stage. The glow of purple stage lights reflected off her face as she beamed at her grandson, his head and shoulders bobbing so hard his whole body almost jumped with the beat of the drums.
"That's my star," Cynthia Jones said. " Awesome. Awesome."