PEORIA -- Of all the careers Katie Fitch could have chosen, the 24-year-old Peorian was drawn to music therapy.
Fitch used her voice, her guitar, some space and some serious education to start introducing music therapy to the Peoria area. Using an empty office in her mother's church -- First Christian Church of Peoria -- as a base of operations, Fitch has given musical therapy sessions to about 30 Peoria area people.
"There's a huge music therapy hole in Peoria; it's long overdue that we start getting more awareness in town," Fitch said. Over her three months giving therapy in Peoria, she has sung for a wide audience, including hospice patients, substance abusers and people suffering from depression.
Before this summer, Fitch had been spending much of her time at the University of Iowa getting a bachelor's of music in music therapy. Now, she is enrolled at the University of Kansas, where she is one school year away from a master's degree in music therapy.
Her mother, the Rev. Karen Merrick, let her host music therapy sessions in an office for the summer months. "It wasn't like pulling teeth to let me do music therapy in my church, I was as excited for this as anything," Fitch said.
This was great news for Alivia Taylor. Her daughter Ava suffered a stroke when she was 2 years old. Now 5, she has had slight neurological issues including delayed feedback in conversation and memory problems. Asked a question, Ava may take 15 seconds to respond.
"The wheels are turning, she just can't get it out sometimes," Alivia Taylor said. "Sometimes, stress and frustration sets in because she's not able to get out the info she knows."
Merrick explained her daughter's form of therapy to Alivia, a member of First Christian, and the mothers saw what a beneficial union their two daughters could have. Both saw the rhythmic and musically-driven therapy class as a perfect chance to engage and help Ava.
"There are holes in her education; kindergarten is not an option," Alivia said. "It's just been amazing what Katie has been able to do for Ava. She has a very specific plan, she likes to lay out what exactly she does each class."
Fitch has iPad videos of Ava therapy sessions that she studies and notes for future classes. One video showed Fitch sitting cross-legged on the floor with her acoustic guitar in hand. Ava sat across from her with a plush alligator and lion between the two. Fitch sang her a song about the two animals and then asked her what happened to them. One video showed Ava sitting, thinking and seemingly waiting for 15 seconds until she answered.
"After some sessions, she started improving. It took her 15 seconds to reply the first time. The last time was two seconds," Fitch said with a smile.
"Katie walks out after a session and she's beaming with pride and a sense of accomplishment. Ava is learning and being helped, and Ava doesn't even realize it," Alivia Taylor said. "I've had people from vacation Bible school tell me that Ava is so much more vocal this summer, I know that's due to Katie."
Alivia also has noted that Ava has been markedly less frustrated since she started to see Fitch. "Are things perfect? No, not yet. But she's been a serious help so far, and sometimes help is the best thing you can get," Alivia said.
While Fitch would love to do nothing more than continue to help Ava and her other clients, school calls. Fitch is leaving Peoria for Lawrence, Kansas, again to write her thesis and finish her master's degree. "I'm trying to round off some conversations," Fitch said. "I'm also going to try staying in conversation with some."
"I'm sad since she'll have to leave. Ava is going to miss her," Alivia Taylor said. Fitch has given her a list of others who offer music therapy-like sessions, but the shortage of those who offer sessions like Fitch is alarming to her.
"The need for this kind of therapy is huge in the area," she said.
With a master's in hand, though, Fitch can get closer to realizing her dream of opening her own music therapy facility in Peoria. "I can't stand being away from my family. I'm really going to miss those I give therapy to, but it's going to be worth it," Fitch said.
"She deserves to get that master's. She's going to do great things with it," her mother said. "She has a presence that makes you feel that you are the number one goal in her world. She's going to help so many people, and I don't even think she considers it work."