JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - It’s a Wednesday night and rehearsal time for the Overcomers Choir, a Central Baptist Church special ministry.
More than 50 people are lifting their voices in song.
At the front of the room, Pat Qualls is hard at work...along with her assistant, Lynn Williams.
They don’t know that just outside the door leading to that room, there’s a big surprise being planned. The music stops and it’s go time.
“Surprise!” Region 8 News’ Diana Davis yells and screams of delight are heard as choir members see TV cameras enter the room.
Qualls looks bewildered and asked, “What is this?”
“Because of you, hundreds of people have found their gift. Their gift with music and we have a gift for you,” Davis said. “You are the next winner in the Gr8 Acts of Kindness!”
The prize money, $408 in cash, is counted and placed in Qualls’ hand.
“On behalf of First Community Bank, we want to say congratulations on being the next Gr8 Acts of Kindness winner,” Brian Emison, senior vice president of retail banking at First Community Bank, said.
“There’s nobody that deserves this more than you do,” Fonda Mann said. Mann nominated Qualls for the Gr8 Acts of Kindness.
The retired choir director is recognized as a visionary - a believer in talents, not yet seen.
To hear her play, you’d never know that Vivian Hardin has autism.
“It’s interesting how God works,” Teresa Hardin, Vivian’s mother said.
Qualls was at church.
“All through the service, I kept thinking—you need to teach Vivian. You need to teach Vivian!” Qualls recalled about the morning she spent sitting next to the Hardin family at First Baptist Church.
"I went over to Teresa and said I think I need to teach Vivian harp lessons,” Qualls said. “Tears streamed down her face.”
“I had just prayed in the pew again. God help Vivian have something,” Teresa Hardin said.
That something is a talent that has grown tremendously.
That’s thanks to Qualls and a program that she created to showcase talent like Vivian’s.
Vivian sits on the stage at the Fowler Center at Arkansas State University with her harp, carefully balanced as she plays.
“After two years of harp lessons, her speech therapist wrote a letter,” Qualls said. “I read it and she said that harp lessons have helped her with her speech and her social skills more than anything else she has done.”
The annual event is called The Role of Music in the Lives of Special Needs Children and Adults.
“I just feel like I was called to do this,” Qualls said. “I just feel so fortunate that that seed was planted in me. It was just meant to be."
Not everyone thought putting special needs performers on stage was a good idea. She started with just five performing acts that first year.
“She called Jenna and Jenna came to me and told me what her idea was,” Trey Stafford said. “And I thought she has lost her mind if she thinks we’re going to be able to get up on a stage and play music.”
Stafford has a son diagnosed with autism.
“We watched his triplets grow up on that stage,” Qualls said. “He said sometimes Treyson doesn’t get it. But when they make music –he gets it.”
And the music led to self-confidence.
“My name is Treyson and I have autism,” Treyson Stafford said on the Fowler Center stage 10 years ago.
“Those guys were just barely playing music at that time,” Trey recalled.
Time passed, and now those same triplets are the band, TRIPP, and writing their own songs.
And they are not alone. The Overcomers Choir is here too.
“They sing with such joy and abandon,” Fonda Mann said. Mann nominated Qualls for the Gr8 Acts of Kindness. “How often do they ever get to be featured on a grand stage like Riceland Hall?” Mann questioned.
And the stories are personal.
“In God’s eyes, we’re all the same,” Dena Mueller, one of the original five performance groups said. “And someday we’re all going to have perfect wings!”
Applause sweeps across the audience inside Riceland Hall.
People have traveled from as far away as Georgia to be part of the program.
“The ministry is called This Little Light of Mine. They bring about 40 people. They have about 40 people. They have about 15 dancers,” Qualls said. “Donald who is in a wheelchair can hardly do anything and it took him two years to be able to put his hand up.”
“The night of the program is so joyful because everybody is either in tears or they are just beaming that all of this is taking place,” Mann said.
“This year, we’ll have about 75 special needs musicians, dancers and artists on stage.” Qualls explained.
Pat Qualls is not just a visionary when it comes to music. She also worked to develop the celebrity bell ringers program for the Salvation Army.
She served as Lake City’s mayor and was appointed by Bill Clinton to serve on the Arkansas Public Service Commission.
If there’s someone you would like to nominate for the Gr8 Acts of Kindness, go to our website and look for Gr8 Acts of Kindness to fill out the form.