RICHMOND, Va. – The VCU Pep Band’s new tambourine player has no musical background, but he’s quickly become one of the most inspiring members of “The Peppas” a boisterous troupe that churns out inspired songs. His name is Ellis Bingham, and although he can barely talk, outside of a handful of words, he’s never spoken with a louder voice – the sound of his spirited, rattling tambourine – than now.
You can find Bingham at Rams games seated in his motorized wheelchair – decorated with a VCU flag and bumper sticker – at floor level, left arm jutting skyward, gleefully shaking his tambourine as The Peppas gyrate their way through another raucous performance.
Known to his bandmates as just “Bing”, Ellis has cerebral palsy, a disorder caused by damage to the cerebellum in developing brains. People with cerebral palsy can face a wide range of motor control disabilities. For Bing, that means a number of physical and speech impairments, including the inability to walk. He can’t sit up without assistance and speaks mostly through a voice computer.
While he’s been faced with those obstacles throughout his life, the 22-year-old Richmond native and his mother, Anna Bingham, have rarely accepted those limitations at face value.
Anna calls Bing her “miracle”. Born 16 weeks premature, Bing weighed just 1-pound, 7.5 ounces at birth and could nearly fit in the palm of Anna’s hand. He spent the next four months in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at MCV. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, which occurs more frequently in premature births, when he was about a year old.
“You go day by day,” Anna says of those challenging early years. “If I knew everything at the beginning that I knew at the end, it would have been too much. You take it day by day. I think your attitude is really important, as well as educating yourself and honestly believing in your child and believing he can do anything.”
Looking back, they pretty much tried everything. At six, Anna signed Bing up for Challenger Division baseball, which caters to children with special needs. He remains in the organization to this day as an assistant coach. Later, at one of her daughter Lauren’s ice skating lessons, Anna strapped Bing’s car seat to a chair and took him out on the ice to play hockey. He’s also skied, bowled and played basketball and soccer. It’s actually a soccer game that helped land him in VCU’s pep band.
In March, Bing was playing soccer in his motorized wheelchair at an event at the Siegel Center held by Sportable, which organizes “adaptive” sports contests for people with disabilities. Anna introduced herself to Tim Lampe, VCU’s director of facilities. Bing was going to be graduating from Deep Run High School in June, and Anna wanted to find activities and purpose to fill the void. VCU Basketball games, both men’s and women’s, had long been a family staple, and Bing was already a fan. Lauren also graduated from VCU in 2011.
“I said, ‘you see that young man over there wearing a Havoc headband? He would really love to be a part of the VCU family,’” Anna recalls. “Tim was incredibly kind and receptive.”
Anna Bingham and Lampe cycled through Bing’s interests, paramount among them, sports and music, so Lampe reached out to VCU Band Director Ryan Kopacsi. Lampe and Kopacsi later attended Bing’s high school graduation ceremony at the Siegel Center, and although they weren’t sure exactly how to involve him, they resolved to find a way.
“Once we saw he can communicate fairly well, I knew we could make something work,” Kopacsi said. “It’s an opportunity to help people, and really, that’s what life is about one way or the other.”
They settled on the tambourine, which capitalizes on Bing’s strength and dexterity in his left side, and since August, he’s been a full-fledged member of the band. He attends rehearsals and as many games Anna is able to shuttle him to, including volleyball, both basketball and soccer teams, and field hockey. She says her son is relishing his new role as a “Peppa”.
“Ryan is his hero,” she says. “It’s a dream come true for him. It molds three things that he loves: sports, music and VCU. The atmosphere in the Siegel Center pumps him up so much.”
It’s also provided Bing with the type of social interactions he lost when he graduated high school.
“The members of the band are just an awesome group of people,” Anna says. “They’re very, very accepting people. They fist-bump him and talk to him all the time. He’s never excluded. He’s always part of the group. These are his friends now. They treat him as one of them.”
“He loves it,” Kopacsi says. “He’s really enthralled by VCU Basketball. He just loves it. He gets psyched up. The first thing he does when he sees me is he gives me a shriek and a fist-bump.”
The experience has also been rewarding for Anna, a single parent who works as an accountant and has dedicated her time and energy to the pursuit of her son’s happiness.
“It’s incredible. As a parent, you want your children to be happy. To have this work out and see the joy in his eyes, especially when he talks to other people about it, makes me so happy,” she said.
The experience is engaging Bing in a number of ways. Anna admits that sometimes he relies too heavily on his computer to communicate, rather than continue to work on his speech. But lately, he’s been putting in a little extra effort into one word specifically. Anna says he’s gotten quite good, to the point where it’s nearly perfect.
If you see Bing, he’ll share it with you. Yell, “Go VCU!”, or “VCU Rams!”, and he’ll respond, “Havoc!”