November 26, 2003
Kansas City Star
Ken Reedy and Walter Mitchell are about to make some magic.
Facing them around a table are four women in wheelchairs; each one is severely disabled by advanced multiple sclerosis.
Reedy and Mitchell are local magicians who volunteer their time to teach the tricks of their trade to these women and to other patients at the Rehabilitation Institute in Kansas City.
It's an arduous process. There's no smoke or mirrors or trapdoors to help them make the difficult stuff easy.
But within an hour, Reedy and Mitchell will have all four of their students performing tricks well enough to put on a show for their family and friends.
They have been working with the patients at the institute for the past year, visiting each month to teach them skills from the repertoire of magic -- rope tricks, card tricks, coin tricks, making animals out of balloons.
"This is what they call in the magic business a paddle move," Reedy said to his four students as he passed out specially prepared frozen treat sticks stored in his black leather bag.
It's a classic trick. One that many magicians pick up early in their career.
A magician shows the audience a small paddle with a dot or star or other shape painted on both sides. With a bit of legerdemain, the magician makes the shape disappear, or change form.
Reedy demonstrates the trick, making the dots at the end of his frozen treat stick paddles come and go at will.
Judy Schnacke, 44, of Overland Park is amazed.
"How'd you do that?" she asked.
Reedy explained the secret of the trick, as Mitchell and Nancy Anderson, a recreational therapist at the institute, worked individually with the women.
"The whole time he's rolling this thing, but he's being sneaky about it," Anderson said as she showed Jill Kralicek, 64, of Kansas City, North how to maneuver her frozen treat stick.
Multiple sclerosis has robbed the women's hands of strength and left them less nimble. Mastery of this new skill comes slowly.
"I'm not as sly as you are," a skeptical Mary McLeese, 78, of Lee's Summit said to Reedy.
"Hon, I've been doing this for 29 years. I don't expect you to do it perfectly," he said.
All of a sudden, Mary Franzke, 46, of Prairie Village announced proudly: "I just did it perfectly."
"That was really good," Anderson said.
"Will that fool my son?" Franzke said.
"This takes some practice before you show anybody," Reedy said.
Kralicek and McLeese break out in smiles. They've caught on.
"This man is showing me all the sharp moves," Franzke said.
Reedy and Mitchell got those sharp moves from Healing of Magic, an organization that has trained therapists and magicians at about 2,200 hospitals and rehabilitation centers worldwide.
Healing of Magic was founded in 1984 by Kevin and Cindy Spencer, a husband-and-wife team of stage magicians who began the program while working as volunteers at their local hospital in Lynchburg, Va.
"We came up with magic tricks that achieved the same goals (as therapy) but were more fun," Kevin Spencer said. "Patients were able to move faster through their rehab."
The Spencers were so successful at improving the dexterity, concentration and memory of occupational therapy patients that they soon had requests from hundreds of therapists and hospitals.
Their magic tricks now are taught to people recovering from severe burns, from brain and spinal cord injuries, from drug and alcohol abuse. The Healing of Magic program is used to teach blind persons in Nevada and special education students in Kansas.
Reedy, 51, has taken the lead in bringing Healing of Magic to Kansas City through his magic club, the Heart of America Ring 129 of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.
About a dozen other members of the club have been receiving Healing of Magic training and will be offering the program to other rehabilitation centers in the metropolitan area.
After working steadily with the disabled, Reedy has found that learning magic has benefits that go far beyond improving eye-hand coordination.
"I just make them feel better about themselves," he said. "People may look down at someone in a wheelchair. But every time they can do a magic trick, it shows that they're worth more than some people may think."
One of Reedy's students was a 13-year-old girl whose legs and fingers had been amputated. The first time he met her, she kept her head down. "Her self-image was gone," he said.
But Reedy taught her two rope tricks and she performed them for his magic club -- to a standing ovation.
"They set themselves up for failure, but we tell them it's all right. When they do it close to perfection it really blows my mind that they could do it," he said. "We see the look on their faces. It makes us feel really good. We get a high from it."
Reedy always had been interested in magic as a child, regularly watching magicians who performed on television. But he didn't try the tricks himself until he was in his early 20s.
"I just discovered there were books about it, so I thought, `Why not do it?'," he said.
Before long, Reedy was making coins vanish, handkerchiefs change color, metal balls levitate.
"It started as a hobby, and it got away from me. It kind of mushroomed," he said.
Reedy held down a succession of full-time jobs -- fuel injector mechanic, biomedical technician, electronic technician.
But in his spare time, magic was growing into his profession. He started by performing at children's birthday parties, and then graduated to work at restaurants and business meetings.
"The fascination to me was that you could get people to believe what you were doing was magical and I could convey that to them," he said.
For the past few years, magic has been the only work Reedy has been able to do. He's fought cancer, and it's now in remission. And he has had chronic migraines.
"That's probably a big part of why I volunteer. I've been through different kinds of therapy and realized, man, this can be boring just squeezing a rubber ball," he said.
"And I know dealing with long-term illnesses you feel a little depressed because there are things you can't do. Getting patients something they can do that others can't can give them something to feel good about."
As Reedy's students finished for the day, he passed out instruction sheets with their homework.
"You guys did this very well," he said. "Practice on your good hand in front of a mirror. See how it looks. Once you get good with your good hand, try it with your other hand."
"You're a good teacher," Judy Schnacke said. "When they first came I didn't think I could do the tricks at all."
But Schnacke already has performed card tricks for family members who visited from out of town, and she's even made balloon animals for her niece.
"It is fun if you can pull it off," she said.
And when that happens, it's real magic.
Copyright © 2003, Kansas City Star