How Fred Penner has inspired an Islander with Down syndrome for 2 decades
'He was just so drawn to that TV program, the music and the person'
An Island mother says performer Fred Penner continues to excite and inspire her special needs son after two decades, and the pair can't wait to see him again this Saturday.
Marina Fay says her son's love of the performer started early. As soon as Fred Penner's Place came on TV, her son Stephen Baird would rush to the living room.
"That was the beginning of the relationship. He was just so drawn to that TV program, the music and the person," said Fay.
"Stephen was a busy little boy, but he would totally stop for those 15 minutes, and before he could walk he would just sit on the floor in front of the TV, or he would stand and barely move."
The power of music
Baird, now 22, has Down syndrome, and has minimal verbal skills.
But to his mother, Baird's love of Penner and his music has always been easy to see.
Fay said it became clear early on that music was not only enjoyable for her son — it was empowering.
In school, involvement in the school band, with the help of a music therapist, offered Baird a sense of belonging.
And Fay says Penner is to thank for that.
"The whole power of music became so obvious to me through Stephen's interaction with him through the TV program and music in general."
'It's a beautiful thing'
In an interview with CBC News, Penner said he holds a treasured spot in his heart for children with special needs.
His sister, Susan, who passed away when he was in his 20s, had Down syndrome. But Penner said he still recalls the positive impact music had on her life.
It is really quite amazing to me how deeply the special needs children do connect with me.- Fred Penner
"Watching Susan and seeing how deeply she was affected by music and loved to listen to sound, watching her get into music to the point of tears, was a real milestone for me in understanding music and its value to a child."
Penner is a supporter of the Canadian Down Syndrome Society, and attends national conferences and local events. He says he's always felt a connection to individuals with Down syndrome, and he's delighted to hear that his music has had such a positive impact on Baird.
"It's a beautiful thing. It is really quite amazing to me how deeply the special needs children do connect with me," said Penner.
"I don't completely understand it, but I'm very much looking forward to seeing him again."
6th show for Island family
Saturday's show at the Indian River Festival will mark the sixth time Fay and Baird will see Penner perform live and wait in line to meet him after the show.
Baird's taste in music has evolved to include the likes of Bob Seger and Bryan Adams, but he still loves listening to Penner's songs on his iPod.
"Anything that happens to have music attached to it, that's what he continues to seek out and find," said Fay.
"I've said to my family many times over the years that I can point the finger back to Mr. Fred Penner, that's where it started, and that was the power of him and his music in Stephen's life."
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