“Hello, my name is Nathan. I am 24 years of age. My biggest dream is to host a night, a night where my friends and myself show you that a disability is not a deficit. I would like to show the community just how much ability we have.”
So went the email we received a few weeks back. Nathan has down syndrome and it’s been his dream for more than ten years to host a major event. And when I met him in person, I could see why. This man has charisma and then some. He also has contacts: like Australian cricketing legend Greg Ritchie for example.
Nathan is about to host the night he’s always dreamed about. Called Night of Abilities with Greg Ritchie and Nathan himself sharing MC responsibilities, the event will see Nathan front and centre as lead singer of one of the starring acts – US – a band that sees six people with different abilities, and their carers, join forces for one hell of a rock and roll show.
Nathan Johnston grew up in the Tweed. He was a student of Centaur Primary School and Coolangatta Special School and then Currumbin Community Special School.
As we sit on the deck at The Avalon Miami to learn more about his event, one of his friends joins us. She met Nathan at Lifebridge.
“Which is an organisation that caters for young adults that can’t go into the workforce yet – they do life programs,” said Melissa Anderson. “These guys sing and play instruments and they have carers on stage to count them in and guide.”
“It’s a good idea,” Nathan tells me about Lifebridge and their music program. “We sang, picked out some songs.”
He says the idea was Rob Pittaway’s, a carer who saw how much his charges loved music and took it from there. It’s been four years since they started making music together
When I ask Nathan what he likes so much about music, he’s straight to the point.
“Just have fun,” he said, before telling me how it makes him feel. “Happy, excitement, amazing.”
“I sang by myself at school and after that I told myself I want to be in a band.”
“It’s amazing and I love everyone,” he said. The band practices every Thursday and Nathan’s favourite track is Knocking on Heaven’s Door but they’ve got a long list of classic rock songs that they’re rehearsing ready for their big show in November. Songs like Mustang Sally, Black Magic Woman, Old Time Rock and Roll.
They’ve also written some original material. Nathan recites the lyrics to one of those tracks,The Lifebridge Song. “We take the bridge, the bridge to the east, we try to tame, we tame the beast… we put it to the test, it’s a long road from TVRS,” Nathan sings to me.
TVRS refers to Tweed Valley Respite Service and the transition its clients made when the changeover happened to Lifebridge.
Nathan’s mother Elaine tells me that he’s always had the dream of compering a major event. The family previously submitted his dream goal of hosting the Nickelodian Kids’ Choice Awards through a Government disability grant program. That wasn’t successful so Elaine decided to make Nathan’s dream come true anyway.
“I was gutted, I felt like I let him down,” she said. “I thought I’m going to get a loan for $5000 and put this on for Nathan. But Melissa said no, you’re not going to spend that money, we will make it happen.”
“So the community has really rallied behind it. They know what Nathan is to them and they know that his performances are outstanding on the stage. They just want to see this dream become a reality.”
Elaine says her youngest son, who is 21 has just finished an animation-related course at Bond University. She said it’s been wonderful to see him work towards his life dream as a young adult.
“But Nathan can’t do this on his own,” she said.
“It’s all about music, it’s all about the entertainment and some sounds,” Nathan says, as we go back to talking about his Night of Abilities. “It’s going to be lots of music and some dancing.”
Some of Nathan’s friends will also be showing off their abilities on the night, which will feature dance, singing, drumming, raffles and auctions. Nathan will sing solo as well as with his band Us who will perform two songs.
Kayah Guenther and Sheane Howe are on the bill to dance, Teika Carmichael is performing solo and playing keyboard, Drum Fun will perform as a group and Studio Aperio will share a group dance. Some of Nathan’s friends who are studying hospitality will also be helping to serve food.
“The generosity of the community has been amazing,” Elaine said, and she raves about how supportive the venue has been. “The Bowls Club has been amazing and donated everything they could and Lifebridge has also supported the event.”
As well as showcasing the incredible diversity of abilities, the evening will also raise funds for Nathan’s band… “for new equipment,” says Nathan. “New drum set, cymbals… and t-shirts, some funky wunkies.”
The team behind the event have a long list of supporters they want to thank and they rattle it off while I scramble to take notes: Tweed Heads Bowls Club, Tropical Fruit World, Coolangatta Tweed Ten Pin Bowling, Easy Tone, Terranora Childcare Centre, Tigress Hair, Ability Links and Studio Aperio all get a mention. Scott McGinlay made a massive banner which he’s personally driving up from Sydney.
Melissa Anderson, who’s worked in disability support and has been a carer for Nathan in the past believes that disability organisations do not get enough recognition for their work.
“When you see these guys up on stage it just blows you away and they just love it and you can’t help but love it with them. You’ll be sitting there watching and you’ll be like ‘oh my god, these guys are really good,’” she said.
“I just think there needs to be something more out there to be able to put their skills to use and it shouldn’t have to be so hard to do that.”
“The more they get out there and the more publicity and knowledge of them the better,” Melissa said.
And of course Nathan’s mum agrees. “People always say things like ‘oh wow, they can actually do something, they’re abled’. We’re trying to take the “diss” out of it,” she said.
Nathan chimes in with some solid advice for other young people wanting to work in music.
“Just be yourself, go with the flow, and have a good time,” he said.
I wrap up by asking Nathan if there’s anything else he wants to add and he says yes.
“It’s Us the band. Rock and roll.”
You cannot argue with the lead singer of a rock and roll band.
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The Night of Abilities takes place on Saturday 7 November 2015 at Tweed Heads Bowls Clubs from 7.00pm (NSW time). As well as entertainment, there are auctions and raffles with Greg Ritchie sharing the MC duties with Nathan and a light supper. Tickets are $25.00 but at the time of getting this story online, had sold out.