Confident that he's on a roll, Trent Rivas smiles broadly as his magic card trick enthralls his small audience. The crisp shuffling, the precise cuts and the counting computations that make this card trick work are finished. All the magician has to do is place down a card for every letter as he spells out "ace of hearts" before turning over that ace of hearts to amaze spectators.
That's when you see Rivas stiffen his upper lip, furrow his brow and renew his focus on that task.
"Spelling 'hearts' is the hardest part," he admits.
Magic does not come easily to this 24-year-old Des Plaines man. He reads at a kindergarten level and can't tell time or make change for a dollar. A stroke at birth damaged 85 percent of his brain's right hemisphere and frontal lobe. Cerebral palsy mangled the left side of his body. Ask him questions about his medical history or milestones in his past, and the gregarious magician falls silent and lowers his gaze.
"See that blank look?" says his mother, Cathy Rivas, 55. "I hate to see that blank look on his face."
That's why she gave up a lucrative hair styling career with her husband Omar Rivas to undergo professional training in special education and become a full-time advocate for her younger son. She fought to get him services through Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59 and for him to graduate through the special education program of Northwest Suburban High School District 214.
The need for health insurance led her to take a demanding job as a Cook County sheriff's deputy at the detention lock-up in Maywood. She and her husband, who still cuts hair at age 73, sacrificed, prodded and lobbied for their boy to get the education and therapy he always has needed.
"I exposed him to a lot of the arts because I was his best friend, his mother, everything," Cathy Rivas says, explaining how she once played Dorothy to her son's Tinman in a theater production of "The Wizard of Oz" just to keep him active and involved.
His father listens to his hair customers brag about their sons' accomplishments in sports, appearances on honor rolls and acceptances into colleges. His best brag might be how his boy, after surgery at age 10 to straighten his crippled left leg, learned how to ride a bike and even motorbikes, something doctors thought he'd never be able to do.
"My childhood was kind of sad," says Trent Rivas, launching into a winding, disjointed story that focuses on his inability to make friends. "They'd say, 'Trent, go down by the lunch line and stand down there.'" And then students in that line "would tell me to go, too."
On Halloween 1999, Trent Rivas saw a show in Arlington Heights starring magician Paul Lee of Carol Stream.
"He was in the front row in a wheelchair," remembers Lee, 53, who made a connection with the boy and his family. By the time the boy was 16, Lee sent VHS tapes of his magic shows at the family's request. For months, Trent Rivas, who has an obsessive-compulsive disorder, watched those tapes methodically, trick by trick.
"He'd get through the first step of a trick, rewind it, go through the first step again, rewind it," his mother remembers. Eventually, he learned Lee's entire act, including the jokes. The boy who couldn't master the simple tasks assigned to him in workshops for people with disabilities found the ability to engage others while performing complicated magic tricks.
"How it worked, I don't know. I'm not a doctor," Lee says. "Did he have the drive and the positive attitude? No doubt about it."
A longtime proponent of the "Healing of Magic," magician Kevin Spencer has spent decades spreading that message around the world. Critically injured during a car crash when he was 24, Spencer was frustrated by the tedious therapies he endured during his recovery. Realizing that magic could get people moving in many of the same ways as boring exercises, he worked with physical and occupational therapists to develop rehabilitation programs using magic.
"We started working with stroke patients," Spencer says, recalling how grandparents who wouldn't make time for therapy exercise couldn't wait to make those same movements while performing magic tricks for the grandkids.
Since then, Spencer, 54, and his wife, Cindy, have built an award-winning illusion and magic show that tours the globe. His "Healing of Magic" therapy earned them humanitarian awards and has been used in thousands of rehabilitation centers in more than 30 nations. Last December's issue of The Lancet medical journal featured a study done in the United Kingdom and Israel showing that magic improved the motor abilities of children with cerebral palsy.
Spencer's working on a film titled "More Alike Than Different," about people who have used magic to overcome disabilities. He says he hopes to finish the film this fall and debut it at the United Nations Enable Film Festival in December.
A film crew spent two days at the Rivas home this week capturing footage of Tony Rivas' life for the documentary.
"Magic is almost like therapy for me. I started using my left hand when I started to do card tricks," he says. The hand, once curved inward and held at his side, has grown and become flexible enough to shuffle cards.
"My dad said, 'Trent, if you want something bad enough, you'll do it. But you've got to want it bad,'" Trent Rivas says. That's why he says he practices "morning, noon, day and night."
"That used to be our family room," Cathy Rivas says of the "Magic Room" where her son has every trick neatly stored and several areas for him to practice.
The young magician appears in some summer shows with magician Jeremy Allen in the Wisconsin Dells and performs for local schools and charities. With the guidance of manager Brian Johnson, 33, of Ingleside, Trent Rivas works part-time at PJ's Trick Shop in Arlington Heights. His problems with math keep him from manning the cash register.
"I can't count money, but I know how to make it disappear," he quips.
When he isn't performing tricks or hanging with his magician friends, "I am not myself," he says. He says he understands how important magic is in his life, and how powerful the example of his transformation can be to others.
"I inspire people with my magic," Trent Rivas concludes, "with or without disabilities."