A lot can change in two years. No one knows that better than Eileen Forlenza and her daughter Holly.
Holly was diagnosed with severe mental retardation at age 2, and for 22 years could communicate only by very basic, non-verbal means.
“The only sound that she makes is laughter,” Forlenza said. “As her family, we have learned to communicate with her through gestures and pointing.”
All that changed two years ago, when Holly met with a professor from the University of San Diego who introduced her to “facilitated communication” — communicating through typing. Something about it clicked, and now Holly is able to communicate in full sentences by typing, with assistance, one letter at a time.
It wasn’t long before Holly decided she wanted to communicate with more people and that she had a message to give.
“I want a platform to teach about love,” she wrote to her family last November.
Forlenza, a professional award-winning speaker, immediately began working to help Holly make her voice heard.
“When all of this happened it was like, ‘OK, I guess this is what I’m supposed to be speaking about,’” Forlenza said. “I’ve been speaking about empowerment and paying attention to people in the margins for years, but I never saw this coming. I never saw this coming from Holly. I’m amazed.”
Forlenza has been a speaker at Camp Experience for the past three years. The three-day event focuses on women, with themes of empowerment, inner strength and connection. Founder Betsy Wiersma was excited to invite Forlenza back to share Holly’s story.
“Our theme when she started her quest was ‘Find Your Voice,’ which was perfect,” Wiersma said, of the previous Camp Experience theme. “And now our theme is ‘Infinite Possibilities.’ Really, it’s an illustration of somebody who didn’t have a voice like many of us have, who (now) does have a voice through music and her book and her bright future.”
Forlenza was the event’s keynote speaker Saturday, presenting Holly’s personal journey. Through months of hard work and dedication, with help from friends, family and professionals, Holly has produced a song and a book. The song, titled “God Will Sing You Home,” was created with the help of Colorado artist Megan Burtt.
Burtt met with Holly and worked with her over several months, composing a melody to go along with Holly’s words.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Burtt said of her collaboration with Holly. “I think it was so moving for me because I felt the responsibility to be her voice and to be trusted with that, and (that) her first expression, first story in front of people, out loud, was my voice, it’s an overwhelming feeling. But I think that this project and song and the success shows that music is such a universal language and that … it’s transcendent, that there are no boundaries and anyone is really capable of speaking that language. And Holly’s no exception.”
Burtt came on stage with her guitar to perform the song, reminding everyone that all of the lyrics were written by Holly and that she, Burtt, felt very honored to be there. At the end of the song, the audience rose for a standing ovation. Burtt gave Forlenza a hug and wiped away tears.
Forlenza composed Holly’s book, “Just Because I Can’t Talk Doesn’t Mean I Don’t Have Anything to Say,” out of phrases Holly had typed, such as “Please help people to understand that other people are impacted by their words.”
Holly joined Forlenza on stage midway through her speech. The audience applauded her entrance, and she presented the crowd with an ear-to-ear grin. She continued to hug her mother, hold hands and wave to her siblings in the audience throughout.
Experiencing Holly’s sudden ability to communicate in complex ways has Forlenza feeling “like I’m in the middle of a miracle.” Although neither she nor science can explain exactly why it’s working for Holly or why it started when it did, what matters is that it’s happening and not only opening Holly up to life, but allowing her voice and her message to be heard.
“I’m overwhelmed by the enormity of it all,” Forlenza said. “I feel so honored to literally be living in the middle of a miracle. That’s what it feels like, and to be standing in it and look around and think ‘this is a miracle,’ and I get to watch it happen in front of my eyes. It’s amazing. I’ve been dedicated to Holly’s well being, like most parents have, her whole life. I’m so happy for her that she can say what she needs to say.”
To learn more about Holly, her book and her song, visit her website at www.HollySpeaksUp.com.
“I think it was so moving for me because I felt the responsibility to be her voice and to be trusted with that, and (that) her first expression, first story in front of people, out loud, was my voice, it’s an overwhelming feeling.”
Colorado artist who helped Holly Forlenza write a song