When the Laingsburg High School marching band performs on their Michigan school’s football field, one band member marches without an instrument.
Rachael Steffens, 17, gave up playing clarinet in the band for her senior year to help bandmate Autumn Michels, who is visually impaired.
“I was excited to do it,” Rachael told ABC News, adding how much she enjoys having Autumn in the band. “She’s always making jokes, and it makes band a lot more fun.”
Autumn was 4 years old when, after a diagnosis of a brain tumor led to chemotherapy and multiple surgeries, she lost vision completely in both eyes.
She found an outlet in music, learning to play the clarinet by memorizing the musical notes in songs.
“Our comment to her has always been, ‘No matter your disability, there is nothing that’s going to stop you,’” said Autumn’s mom, Angela Michels. “She’s definitely a go-getter.”
When Autumn, now 14, decided she wanted to play in her high school marching band, band director Thomas Cousineau searched for a solution.
“It was a little bit of the unknown,” he said. “We do so many [marching] formations, and the speed of the music is so fast at times.”
Cousineau and Autumn’s parents agreed a fellow student should be by her side on the field to help guide her.
Rachael volunteered to help Autumn at a band camp over the summer, and when the fall band season began, she stepped up again.
“I asked Rachael when we got back from camp, and before I finished she cut me off and was on board,” Cousineau said. “She enjoys every minute.”
Rachael stands by Autumn’s side at all times to keep her both safe and in formation, while also making sure other band members around her are in the right spots.
“I love Rachael. she’s amazing,” Autumn said. “She puts her hand on my shoulder and tells me where to go. If she realizes I’m on the wrong foot she’ll tap the shoulder [of the foot] that everybody is on.”
She said of their fellow band members, “Everybody is really, really supportive of Rachael and I, just cheering us on.”
Michels described what it is like to watch Autumn march alongside her peers.
“You always want your kid to have something special,” Michels said. “This gave us the opportunity for our family to see Autumn do something that makes her happy.”
She added, “Rachael did that for us.”
Rachael said she also finds joy in helping Autumn to do something that she loves.
“I’m really happy that she’s able to do this because music is something that she loves,” she said. “Just being able to see her flourishing in something that she really enjoys is great.”