ROCKFORD -- Thrifty shoppers enter the ReStore in Rockford to buy donated putty knives and tiles, used dishwashers and other household items.
If they're lucky, a pleasant surprise greets them: the melodic piano music of classical Chopin or contemporary Effervescence.
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The young man tickling the ivories at whatever secondhand piano happens to be for sale is Elijah Londo, 22, of Rockford. He used to work at ReStore, which benefits Rockford Area Habitat for Humanity. The group helps build affordable houses. He cleaned up and stocked shelves, but now he volunteers occasionally.
His scruffy facial hair and wrinkled polo shirt belie the smooth, precise way he strokes the keys to produce alluring sounds. "You go into most stores and you hear canned music over the speakers," Clemon Hearne of Rockford said while looking for rugs for his children's bedrooms. "This sounds good."
The way Londo learns to play piano music is as extraordinary as the support he's had through much of his troubled life since becoming a member of Julia Anderson's home.
After hearing Anderson, his foster mother, play classical pieces on the piano, one day "he just started playing," she said. "I could not believe it." He'd had no lessons and was 11 years old.
Anderson, a special-education teacher in the Rockford School District, believes the gluten-free diet she had just put him on helped him focus.
Londo has Asperger syndrome, an autistic spectrum disorder. Anderson considers his piano skills savant-like.
Savants have mental disabilities but demonstrate skills in excess of what would be considered normal. "He is brilliant at the piano," Anderson said.
"True savant characteristics are very rare," said Jacque Ruch, school administrator at Easter Seals Autism Therapeutic School in Rockford. Yet many people with autistic spectrum disorders have strong skills in music and math. "Music is predictable on a scale. Math is predictable."
Less predictable are social situations. Asperger syndrome patients "often have social awkwardness, which they can overcome," she said. But because of the social challenges, they can be more susceptible to anxiety or depression.
Londo is a "success story because he defied the odds," Anderson said. He lives on his own and has two part-time jobs in Rockford, cleaning at a grocery store and the federal courthouse. He walks to his jobs or takes the city bus. "His life hasn't been easy."
Anderson met Londo when he was about 4 years old. "He was a rascal," she said. She worked with him in school to help with his behavior problems, and his language skills were poor.
He was born in South Carolina and had been in eight foster homes. A fellow teacher noted Anderson's good rapport with him and suggested that she become a foster parent and care for him.
It was difficult but gratifying. Anderson was a single parent with three children. Her foster son had to be hospitalized when his behavior was too much to handle at home.
But when he started playing piano, "it cleared up the fog in his brain. He would hear something and it was like he was in a trance." That state carried over to the piano.
Family members sometimes tired of his playing because he would repeat the same pieces. Anderson said she didn't get him piano lessons. "He doesn't like to be bossed around." Instead, she buys CDs of classical music for him to listen to.
Londo attended special-ed classes while school-age. When he became an adult, he wanted to live on his own. Stepping Stones of Rockford helped him get a place and helps him manage his money and the medication needed to keep him focused.
Londo often has dinner with his family on weekends. He plays piano while the daughter Anderson adopted five years ago from China plays violin.
"It is so cute," Anderson said. "He listens to what she is playing once, and then he plays it on the piano. He adores her."
Londo said he has other skills. "I do advanced origami figures, like a horse, and I give it to people. And I knit and crochet scarves and hats and give them to people."
Playing piano is his main pastime, though. Chopin is his favorite composer. "His music is advanced, with advanced chords that sound beautiful," he said.
Jen Gorman, assistant manager at ReStore, said customers enjoy Londo's piano playing. "It makes everybody's mood a little bit brighter."