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In early 2020, on a sunny winter day in Riverside Park, Linda Munguia noticed a group of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) and their support staff. Always one to make connections, Munguia was quick to strike up a conversation. Intrigued by how the group interacted as they strolled through the park, she asked where they were from.

“They said YAI, but I immediately forgot the name,” said Munguia. She then saw the group again a few weeks later waiting at the bus stop, and this time the name YAI stuck.

“It was happenstance, but I feel like it was fate,” Munguia said. After her second encounter, Munguia visited YAI’s website and was surprised to see the scope of services YAI provides people with disabilities. Munguia had witnessed her former neighbor and friend with I/DD struggle to access services in the past, and she was pleased to see such comprehensive programming existed. She began donating to YAI on a monthly basis.

No sooner had Munguia’s first donation come through than Amy Sigona, YAI’s Assistant Director of Major Gifts, was writing her a thank-you card.

“Ever since I started at YAI, I made it a practice to reach out to donors with thank-you notes,” said Sigona. “I reached out to Linda with a personal thank-you note after her first donation, and then the next month I called her to say, ‘thank you for being a monthly donor.’”

The two made plans to meet in person, although the pandemic kept that plan on hold until July 2021. When they finally got together, Sigona learned of Munguia’s background in music.

“I said, ‘it’s funny you should bring up opera, we’re trying to start some type of recreational programming for people we support so they can listen to music,’” Sigona explained. “And Linda said, ‘tell me more.’”

After their initial meeting, Munguia met with other staff members, deepening her relationship with YAI, and ultimately, she agreed to sponsor a concert series. Her goal is to give aspiring performers a venue to hone their skills while also exposing people with disabilities to the wide range of musical talent that exists in New York.

“I’m retired now but I’m a former opera singer,” said Munguia. “Music reaches a part of your brain that hasn’t been reached. It stays with you.”

According to Jacquy Joachim, a supervisor at YAI’s Schafler residence in Manhattan, the two concerts that have already taken place were very well received by Schafler residents. The first, which was held at YAI’s Headquarters in December 2021 and featured classic holiday music performed by singer/songwriter Mary Gatchell, was an immediate hit.

“The people we support really enjoyed it. They were interacting with the singer and it was one of the major first events they’ve gone to since the pandemic,” said Joachim.

“Music is very important to people we support here. And all arts, period. Schafler residents are very talented. One of the people who used to live here would play piano all the time for everyone,” Joachim said. “And many of them go to the Bryant Park concert series on Fridays. Music is very important to people we support here. And all arts, period.”

The impact of music and the arts, particularly on people with I/DD, goes beyond simple enjoyment. According to a 2005 study, “Music therapy may be beneficial in promoting self-advocacy and self-determination in individuals with I/DD in both individual and group settings by promoting independence, self-awareness, and other skills that assist with advocacy through incorporating decision-making, problem-solving, and self-awareness in sessions.”

Despite the importance of music, traditionally in times of crisis, funding for the arts is often one of the first things to be cut. However, thanks to another donor, YAI launched a music therapy group this year in collaboration with the Louis Armstrong Department of Music Therapy at Mount Sinai. By advocating with the City Council, last year YAI procured an additional $40,000 to support arts and cultural programming throughout the City. These initiatives provide a vital outlet for people with I/DD, exposing them to new opportunities while fostering creativity.

For Munguia, the concert series is just a first step. She also envisions facilitating dances, singalongs, and other activities to get people at YAI engaged in the arts.

“It’s a huge privilege and honor to me to do this,” Munguia said. “Even if it’s just music, it’s something. We’re adding to people’s experience, and it might perk up their day, and that’s all we can do in this world. We can just help people.”

Munguia is also quick to add that anyone can get involved. “I tell everybody about YAI. This is such a wonderful thing. It’s not political, it’s nondenominational, it’s just doing good.”

Sigona agrees. “A donor’s support, no matter how small or big, will make a difference, no matter what. It goes to support our overall mission and we can work with donors for gifts that are meaningful for them…Linda has built a meaningful and personal connection to YAI. And because it’s important to her, it has a much greater impact.”