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Meet Ifunanya Nweke of Jazz Hands For Autism in Westwood

Today we’d like to introduce you to Ifunanya Nweke.

Jazz Hands For Autism is a 501(c)(3) talent advocacy group that creates avenues from expression to employment for musicians on the autism spectrum. The founders of JHFA believe that success is the ability to do what you love and be paid for it. They believe that success is the ability to unify people, inspire people, move people, and change people for the better, all by doing what you love.

JHFA finds its roots in 2014 when its Founder and Executive Director, Ifunanya Nweke, was blessed with the opportunity to witness what she calls the beginning of the road to success for Ruben J, a young musician on the autism spectrum.

It was a typical weekday as the seventh grade students at a local middle school moved from class to class. However, their music class had a sub, which to the students of course meant… DO WHATEVER YOU WANT! So, Ruben did just that: he spontaneously sat down at the piano and began singing a song. And then something happened: his other classmates flocked to the remaining instruments in the room to accompany him.

This blew Ifunanya away.

What she saw was Ruben—who was usually the guy in the corner of the classroom with his behavior therapist—become a leader simply by being himself and doing what he loves. She saw his capacity to succeed.

At that moment, destiny met opportunity: Ifunanya knew that there must be more musicians on the autism spectrum like Ruben, with their potential to be leaders lying dormant. So, just like that, Jazz Hands For Autism was born.

Jazz Hands for Autism’s first program was the Jazz Hands Concert Series 1 (#JHCS1), which took place on May 25th, 2014. The concert featured 3 musicians with roughly 20 people in the audience, and hearts full of excitement and joy. Since then, they have grown to produce 2 concerts a year, each with 10 – 15 musicians and 100+ audience members, creating even more hearts full of joy, excitement, and impact.

In addition, in September 2016, the organization inaugurated the Jazz Hands Musician’s Academy, a full time vocational and job placement program tailored towards helping musicians on the autism spectrum transition into the workforce and be consistently employed in music-based jobs (including teaching and performance). Jazz Hands For Autism also actively seeks out paid and volunteer performance opportunities for their students and musicians, year-round. Some past opportunities include: The Eagle Rock Farmer’s Market, private parties for individuals like former Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan, the Special Olympics World Games 2015, The Original Pantry Employee party, and a fundraising event for Exceptional Minds.

At its most recent concert on May 27th, 2017, JHFA celebrated 3 years of operation with 12 musicians (all playing different genres) who were supported by an audience of about 100 people from all different walks of life. At this concert, members of the audience coined a new phrase: #JazzHandsJoy. This phrase expresses both the enthusiasm of the performers and the joy they bring their audience.

#JazzHandsJoy encapsulates another part of the JHFA vision. In addition to empowering individuals on the autism spectrum to reach their potential and their goals, the organization also seeks to:

Alleviate the stigma associated with autism by helping the world see more of what individuals on the autism spectrum CAN do, instead of focusing on their challenges bridge the gap between the autism community and the general population through music.

JHFA is just getting started. With a governing board of 5 and a staff of 6, they have a lot more leaders to nurture, success to inspire, and joy to instill.

Jazz Hands For Autism has received recognition from California Assemblyman Mike Gatto of the 43rd District, and has been highlighted on 102.7 KIIS FM, on the USC website and on the Pierson to Person podcast series.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
It hasn’t been a smooth road. Ifunanya was very new to the world of nonprofit and program management when she founded Jazz Hands For Autism. Understanding how to make the leap from service provider to service manager was a huge learning curve, understanding the stressors and joys of fundraising was a huge learning curve, and understanding how to maintain a familiar and personal connection with each of the musicians Jazz Hands For Autism supports while simultaneously making executive organizational decisions is a huge and continuous learning curve

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Jazz Hands For Autism – what should we know?
It is our job to support musicians on the autism spectrum with finding jobs and with becoming a contributing member of society.

We don’t view individuals on the autism spectrum solely as “consumers”, we believe that they have the power and potential to be “producers” as well.

At Jazz Hands For Autism are investors. We are investing in the well of potential that (often) lies dormant in individuals on the autism spectrum. We are holding up a mirror to them, showing them who their spirits reveal them to be: powerful, capable and talented musicians, unstoppable leaders and self-advocates, confident people with a voice that carries an important message.

Jazz Hands For Autism provides musician focused job training and job placement to musicians on the autism spectrum and produces two concert events annually, that showcase the passion and progress of the musicians we work with. At the concert, the musicians also get a chance to advocate for themselves by sharing their musical essence in front of a supportive audience.

Is there a characteristic or quality that you feel is essential to success?
The quality that is most important to the success of Ifunanya as the leader of Jazz Hands For Autism is her courage, unwavering optimism, and deep faith in the God of possibilities.

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Image Credit:
Udo Asomugha
Alex Montufar

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