BY SAM WATERSTONE | LEER EN ESPAÑOL
“No matter how little you have, you always have enough to give to somebody else.” Debbie Fisher, a fourth generation Santa Barbaran, learned this lesson from her mother, and she believes that it perfectly describes her 20-year-old daughter, Grace. Grace Fisher has endured extraordinary adversity – she was diagnosed with Acute Flaccid Myelitis during her senior year of high school and became paralyzed from the neck down. In the years that followed her diagnosis, Grace used music therapy and adaptive art to aid in her physical recovery, which also helped to heal her mind and soul. After harnessing the power of art and music to improve her life, Grace challenged herself to bring the arts to children with special needs and has devoted herself to giving back to her community. Even after losing so much, Grace is adamant that she still has plenty to give.
With support from the Make A Wish Foundation and the Santa Barbara Foundation, Grace launched the Grace Fisher Foundation in 2016, a nonprofit dedicated to spreading adaptive art and music education to the special needs community. Her work focuses on increasing opportunities for special needs youth, breaking down stereotypes about people with disabilities, and inspiring others to be compassionate and inclusive to people of all abilities. Grace has already made a significant impact in Santa Barbara County, and she is very grateful for the positive response she has received. “Living in Santa Barbara, this community has been so special to me,” Grace said. “I think the power of community, family and, ultimately, love that surrounded this tragedy really brings something good out of it. It hasn’t just been me, it’s been Santa Barbara.”
Since its inception, the Grace Fisher Foundation has organized three Allies For the Arts events, where special needs children and their families have the opportunity to create art and interact with one another. “There is such a large special needs population in Santa Barbara,” Grace explains. “I’ve gone into the Goleta Valley Junior High special needs class and talked with them and seen what their needs are. A lot of times, when a child lives with a disability, they go to school during the week, but that’s really the only interaction they have with other people. So I’ve done these Allies For the Arts events, and it’s not only been a fun way for these children to create art, but also for them to get involved in the community.”
On December 22, 2018, Grace and her team put on their largest event to date, a Winter Music Showcase benefiting the Grace Fisher Foundation and a number of other local music organizations. The event featured an amazing video that Grace created earlier this year, in which she plays the song Mia and Sebastian’s Theme (from the film La La Land) on the piano. Debbie came up with the idea to show Grace’s rendition of the song on a big screen with the Santa Barbara Youth Symphony backing her up with a live performance. The event was nearly derailed when Debbie learned that due to copyright law, they could not use the song without explicit permission from the composer. Fortunately, Grace’s incredible ability to inspire others saved the day.
Grace reached out to the musician who wrote the song, Academy Award-winning composer Justin Hurwitz, and told him how meaningful it was to her: “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme meant so much to me,” she wrote, “because Mia and Sebastian were supposed to have this beautiful life together, and they didn’t have that life, but they still had beautiful lives – just different lives. Just like my life.” Within an hour, Justin emailed Grace back and said “I was so touched by this – that is exactly what I wanted the sentiment of the movie to be about.” He then sent the video to Damien Chazelle, the director of La La Land. They were both blown away, and enthusiastically approved Grace’s use of the song for nonprofit purposes.
The Winter Music Showcase also featured performances from several music nonprofits that Grace has been involved with, including the Santa Barbara Youth Symphony, the Santa Barbara High School Madrigals, Santa Barbara Strings, and the Santa Barbara Youth Music Academy. A portion of the proceeds benefited each of these organizations.
In addition to organizing events, Grace believes it is important to engage youth who might have misconceptions about what it means to live with special needs. “I know what it’s like to be a typically developing kid, and I think there is a lot of ignorance surrounding disability,” said Grace. “I was definitely a part of that before my injury.” To address this issue, Grace gives art lessons to sixth grade classes and guides them through an art project that has one special rule: everyone has to hold their paintbrush with their mouth, as Grace does, or with their non-dominant hand. Grace is very transparent and open about her disability, and the students love asking questions. Sharing her perspective with young people is one way that Grace is able to break down stereotypes about people with disabilities and create more inclusive and understanding communities.
Recently, Grace’s community work has taken a backseat to her academic studies, but she plans to continue spending time at local schools, organizing events, and collaborating with like-minded nonprofits. Grace’s remarkable talent, work ethic, and passion for giving back has brightened the lives of many special needs children in Santa Barbara County, and her advocacy work has brought attention to the need for more inclusive spaces for individuals living with disabilities.
To learn more about the Grace Fisher Foundation and their upcoming events, visit www.gracefisherfoundation.org.