Tony Nakamoto – Making Headway for the Special Needs Community

Interview with Dave and Hiroko Nakamoto, written by Helen Chou

Growing up in a family surrounded by music, Tony developed  his musical talents organically. I first saw this young man play the snare drum in the FCSN percussion band; he was able to perfectly execute complex sequences without one note out of beat. I learned from his mom, Hiroko, that he had recently started working at a company servicing Google’s various cafes. Dave and Hiroko Nakamoto in this interview described Tony’s journey growing up and making employment a reality.

Early Years
Tony was born in Japan. When he was around one, we thought we had a genius when he was able to read a little over 100  syllabaries of the Japanese alphabet. We discovered he had perfect pitch when he would put his index finger to his lips whenever his grandmother sang a wrong note to him. When he couldn’t put two syllables together to make a word, or make the leap from the songs he was singing to actual words, we started to get worried. On top of that, Tony had a very short attention span and was hyperactive. One time, Hiroko took him to a Kawai music class for young kids. Tony couldn’t sit still and kept running around, not paying attention to the class at all, thoroughly embarrassing Hiroko. On their way home, however, she noticed Tony singing all the songs that were taught, proving that although it did not seem like he was paying attention, Tony had somehow picked up the music that was taught in class. At that point, we knew Tony was unusual. We took him to see several doctors in Tokyo, who at best pointed out his differences and at worst predicted a life of uselessness. None provided useful insights on his condition or prognosis. At that point, we figured if we stayed in Japan, he would receive little help. Thus I resigned my position, and we moved to the U.S. when Tony was three years old.

Growing up with Music
After returning  to the U.S., Tony was diagnosed at CHC and started receiving intervention from Regional Center. During his elementary school years, Tony was in the full-inclusion program with a 1-on-1 aide. During his middle and high school years, he was 80% in SDC* class, only going to orchestra and piano lab mainstream classes. After high school, he went to post-secondary at the community college and took lab classes for piano and guitar as well as physical education. He had learned violin during elementary school band, was drawn to the marimba, and began taking lessons from Professor Galen Lemmon from San Jose State University. Since both of us are musicians, we always have music playing around the house. His post-secondary teacher recognized his musical talents and started volunteering him to play music at senior centers and other such places. Together with Donna Smith, Sufen Wu, and Elie Younes, Hiroko decided to create opportunities for their musically talented special needs kids. We hired Dave Anderson and created Magic Makers, the first special needs rock band in the Bay Area. Through Magic Makers, Tony got to perform at a lot of places including at the Special Olympics in Los Angeles and many local South Bay venues, from events like the DAD to performances at Mariani’s. Magic Makers became the first winners of the first FCSN Talent Show.

Tony performing marimba
Tony and Professor Lemmon

Employment at Google
We found Tony’s current job through good old- fashioned networking. The son of a friend worked as an engineer at Google; he found out about a paid internship program at Compass Group, the food service and support services company that runs the cafes at Google. Compass Group also serves hospitals, museums, schools, and corporate cafes all across the U.S. The interns in the training programs come from diverse backgrounds, including but not limited to special needs individuals. The entire process was surprisingly straightforward. Tony had to go through the interview process and obtain the Food Handler Certification. At that time, Tony was not part of any employment programs offered by FCSN or regional center. We had to request from San Andreas Regional Center a job coach for Tony. The program trained Tony and other interns at three of Google’s cafes. The training was thorough and included front and back end operations, such as food preparation, place setting, busing tables, and washing dishes (his favorite job). Throughout the six month training period, the interns were given evaluations and were graded twice a week. They also received a training wage. The training program taught Tony what he needed to learn for his job, but he still needed his job coach to help him transition from one task to another. At the end of the program, Compass extends offers of employment to trainees they assess can do the job. Tony was about one month away from completing the training program. Managers were eager to extend the offer of employment for Tony, but then the coronavirus pandemic hit and life as we know it came to a pause.

Tony really enjoys his job and looks forward to getting back to work again soon. He is well liked by his colleagues, and he feels welcomed there. Everything was going so well, and we were so close to getting him hired. In the meantime, we are keeping in touch with the manager and waiting for things to get back to normal again. My advice for parents looking to find employment for your special needs child is to tap into your network. We know friends who have found employment for their children just by simply asking around. Also, don’t be afraid to let your child try out for mainstream opportunities or to create opportunities for your child.

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