Gabe Stanforth is the 2015-16 IHSA nominee for the NFHS Heart of the Arts Award:
Rockridge High School principal Katy Hasson occasionally forgets some of the details regarding her students. That is understandable when you consider that all told, over 600 students from grades sixth through twelfth roam the hallways of her building in Taylor Ridge.
Gabe Stanforth is no different.
“Sometimes I will see Gabe down the hall and yell ‘hi’ to him,” said Katy. “Not even thinking that he can’t see who I am from there. Gabe doesn’t want any special treatment, he wants to be treated like any other kid. He has worked his tail off to the point that people like me forget he even has a disability.”
Gabe Stanforth is completely different.
Those differences have nothing to do with him being legally blind in both eyes, and all to do with the fact that he is likely more active and steeped in achievement than the other 99 percent of his high school peers across the country.
In addition to being one of the most gifted musicians to ever walk the halls of Rockridge High School, Gabe also excels academically (4.25 GPA, 33 ACT, Top 3 in his class), in activities (show choir, scholastic bowl), athletically (two-sport athlete), and in the community (Eagle Scout, volunteerism).
When asked about his involvement and successes, Gabe quickly returns praise on all the people who have advocated for him in the Rockridge schools and community, saying. “I am just really thankful that they accepted me and allowed me try the things I wanted to do. They made me a part of the normal group.”
Gabe’s mom Joey knows the importance of being in a group. She has taught at the Rockridge junior high for nearly 20 years, while also coaching the high school’s cheerleading team as well during that timeframe.
“Sports are a big thing in a small school,” said Joey. “The kids who aren’t in sports can sometimes get left behind socially. We weren’t sure what Gabe would be able to do sports wise with his condition, which was one of the reasons we got him into piano lessons as soon as we could.”
Gabe was born with cataracts in both of his eyes, as well as with the extremely rare condition of aniridia, where neither eye has an iris. He was very light sensitive and wore glasses to see early on, but as a five year-old the cataracts in his left eye grew so large that he lost all vision in it. More setbacks followed, as a cornea transplant in the left eye failed to provide vision and the onset of severe glaucoma would require another procedure. Gabe would have a tube surgically inserted into his eye to help relieve the pressure from the glaucoma, the presence of which would spell the end of his grade school wrestling career.
“I was a little scared at that time,” said Gabe. “My eye problems had stopped me from doing something I liked to do and I started to wonder what else I might not be able to do and what my life would be like. As time went on I figured out that music was my thing.”
Gabe first started playing piano around age four and continues to consistently take lessons and play recitals today. Rockridge’s school band program begins in sixth grade, and when Gabe reached that juncture he added percussion to his musical arsenal. The band offerings continued to expand when he reached high school, and Gabe took advantage. He will graduate this spring as a four-year member of the Rockridge Concert Band, Jazz Band, Pep Band, and Marching Band.
Marching band was a new offering at the high school level, and despite the issues his vision impairment posed, Gabe never had any doubts about his participation. He simply worked harder, memorizing all the music so that his limited vision could be used to focus on the band movements. Gabe remains flanked during performances by several close friends in the percussion section who are there to help, but their assistance is rarely needed.
“If everybody in the band was like him we would be phenomenal,” laughed band director Jessica Zabransky. “We tell him go right, go left, go right and he literally memorizes everything. All the kids know how much time and hard work he puts into it. They respect him for that, but even more so simply because he is a nice, kind-hearted, funny young man.”
That hard work has paid off for Gabe and his fellow musicians at the high school. Competing in the IHSA’s two statewide musical competitions, Group Organization and Solo & Ensemble, has resulted in numerous team and individual accolades.
Five of Gabe’s six solos performed at these contests earned him the best possible rating, Division I, which accumulated team points that helped Rockridge win a third-place trophy in 2014, before capturing the IHSA Class B state championship in 2015.
“Every school is proud of their programs,” said Joey. “But our music program is exceptional and it has been a Godsend for him. When he first told me he wanted to do marching band, I didn’t think it would be possible. I had the same reaction when he wanted to run cross country. In every instance the teachers or coaches or students or parents have stepped up and found a way.”
Finding a way seems to be Gabe’s forte, as he never seems shy about challenging himself. In addition to playing piano solos at the IHSA state competition, he has also performed four different instrument solos in four years, including his first-ever tympani solo last year, and plans for a mallet solo this spring. Meanwhile, his heavy extracurricular load grew bigger as high school progressed, as he joined the scholastic bowl team as a junior and put his marching band principles on display with the show choir this year.
“Music is something I have been doing my whole life and something hopefully I can always do,” said Gabe. “So it has been nice to branch out some. I hope to be a part of a band in college next year, but I want to make sure that it isn’t too much as I adjust to college and classes.”
No matter where he is next year, state final trophies and Division I ratings won’t be the only thing Gabe leaves behind for the future of the Rockridge music program.
Combining two of his great passions last year, music and Boy Scouts of America, Gabe set out to fix a space issue the Rockridge music program was incurring in its music room while simultaneously earning his Eagle Scout badge. After fundraising to buy supplies, Gabe and his father built several mobile instrument cubbies for the high school music program.
“It was exactly what we needed,” said Jessica. “He really is a remarkable young man. When it comes to Gabe, we have never asked if he can do things, he just does it on his own. It is never a question.”
So while the details may be forgotten on occasion, it is clear that for Rockridge’s principal, Gabe Stanforth will certainly not be.
“I know he will be successful in the future,” said Katy. “I look forward to seeing him continue to do great things.”