Our Story


My pen took off as if it were writing a story on its own. My thoughts could hardly keep up with it. Tara was now a young adult—a college graduate. What was this need to tell her story and rewind back to her earliest days? Was it the result of all the pent-up emotions I had experienced over the years, or was I channeling this from some creative source propelling me to share our experiences with younger parents and their children first starting out on their journey together—to help smooth out the terrain upon which they will travel?


Our baby girl entered the world marking the proudest moment in our lives—binding us together with a product of our love, providing us with an adorable companion to share our lives going forward. Where would our paths take us? Little did we know how much our new companion would determine that.

What a child she was! Always on the move and full of enthusiasm. Eyes bright with wonder as she explored her world. Along with great abilities and surprising musical talent, Tara would later present perplexing challenges. Was there a name for this puzzling combination? Not able to get a diagnosis, we were left with a MYSTERY.

We were set on a path that we were forced to carve for ourselves, isolated from others. We became creative in overcoming obstacles, bending and twisting to fit into the constraints of mainstream society, often finding ourselves on its periphery. Sustaining us on our journey were love, determination, and endurance. We were surrounded by beautiful music, guided by the light of HOPE.

There would be many questions without answers as Tara grew up. A diagnosis of high-functioning autism would not come until Tara was 21 years old. It unlocked some of the mysteries while opening up new ones. What was its cause? What could be done to help? These are questions faced by countless people with autistic family members today. With this diagnosis, we were no longer alone. We, together with other families, are now on a path seeking to solve this mystery, raising awareness of the prevalence of this condition, searching for a cure, and demanding social justice for our children.


When Tara was six years old, the gift arrived that would alter our family’s life. Tara’s grandparents sent their piano from their home in St. Louis, Missouri, to our new home in Honolulu, Hawaii. Tara took to the piano as if it were a part of her. She memorized the sound of every key and soon taught herself to play any music she heard by ear. She began to compose her own music. Through music, she was able to express her thoughts and emotions and reflections on the world around her. The lyrics to her songs showed that she was philosophically precocious. This music would lift us up above some of the harshness in our lives to a place of joy where we experienced pride and gloried in Tara’s ability and marveled at the blessing of her gift.

Tara’s passage through the school system became the roughest part of our journey. She attended mainstream classes that were structured for convenience with the goals of standardization and conformity. Was it in the mind-set of society to embrace and encourage diversity? Did schools create socially sensitive environments for children with special needs? Did they accommodate unique ways of learning? Did the curricula provide the outlets that encourage growth and belief in oneself for ALL children? Were there opportunities for ALL children to make contributions to enrich their classroom communities? The answer to these questions was NO.

As a parent, I came to realize that besides the daily courage and effort it takes to deal with one’s personal challenges, dealing with society can become the even bigger problem.

Often bewildered by the insensitive reaction of other children and her consequential isolation, Tara would come home to her beloved piano (the voice of her soul) and play songs of hope that reflected her belief in the potential goodness in all people. She created a musical, magical world where “all people got along and were accepted exactly the way they were.” One of these songs, “Welcome to a Bright New World,” became the inspiration for the Starabella series. It is in her music that Tara’s generous nature lies. She shares her vision of a better world to include all people.

Dana’s arrival into our family three years after Tara’s brought the sunshine into our lives. Perhaps other people’s days started with the rising sun, but my days did not begin until I kissed Dana good morning and she smiled her dimpled, sunny smile. I took her happy demeanor to be a reflection showing me that as far as she was concerned, I was OK. I gloried in that. Her contentment built my confidence, and we bonded quickly and easily.

Because of Dana’s personality, abilities, and talent, our family’s path branched off into many interesting directions. We attended school assemblies to see her honored with awards, attended chorus recitals where she was among the soloists, attended plays where she usually had the lead. By sixth grade, she had applied to and was accepted to Punahou School, a prestigious private school in Honolulu. She attended Punahou through high school. She went on to graduate from Brown University.

One person’s plight in a family affects every member of that family. Dana took an early interest in Tara’s circumstances and her music. Dana began writing lyrics to Tara’s music, and they would later perform extensively together throughout our local community. Before one of these performances, Dana introduced Tara this way:

“Tara has a story to tell. She tells of her experience and feelings growing up with learning differences and her struggle to understand and conform to the world around her and, ultimately, have that world enter hers to discover empathy and understanding together. Tara tells that story beautifully through inspired and inspirational music—a style all her own. She strives with her music to give people courage to reach for their dreams.”

Tara’s and Dana’s paths intersected frequently through their music. They became connected by their musical talent and shared ideals.

We reached a joyful part of our journey when Dana and Tara made their professional debut at the ages of 11 and 14, respectively. They were hired to perform their original compositions, popular music, and Japanese songs at a shopping-center stage on weekends for the next year and a half. It was when she was performing that Tara appeared to glow with a light emanating from within. Dana was in her element, loving to perform. It was during these performances that our family was lifted to a level of joy, by the magic of music, above our daily concerns.

In 1993, Tara and Dana made their first recording of a song called “A New Beginning.” Tara had composed “A New Beginning” at age 13, and Dana added the lyrics three years later when she turned 13. The song epitomizes Tara and Dana’s joint musical philosophy. When they recorded the song, they hoped to remind people that it is possible and necessary not only to reach each other, but also to gain a greater sense of personal fulfillment and self-realization. They wanted to inspire their listeners to make new beginnings personally, nationally, and globally. These sentiments are just as meaningful today. Dana has recently recorded “A New Beginning” for re-release.

We would reap many rewards along our path when determination paid off. With her innate strength and determination, Tara went on to earn a certificate in Early Childhood Education from Honolulu Community College. She put her degree to good use by bringing her musical message to children.

I had been Tara’s study buddy. Based on what we learned about child development, I became inspired to write interactive, educational shows for children incorporating Tara’s music. Together, Tara and I made props and scenery that we loaded in our station wagon along with her guitar, keyboard, and amplifier. We were “On Our Way”!1 Tara performed these shows solo, occasionally joined by Dana when she was visiting home on college breaks. Tara performed regularly in preschools, kindergarten classrooms, multiple-handicapped elementary school classrooms, day programs, after-school programs, and an intermediate special needs classroom.

Book Three of Starabella emerged from our observations of children at play at the schools where Tara performed. I noticed that anyone can become the object of ostracism. Combining Tara’s childhood dilemmas with those of other children, the story covers a broad spectrum of social situations children confront at school every day. Some of the comments made by Starabella’s classmates are the actual words of these children. In 1994, we recorded a version of the Starabella story that incorporated these observations. This version now comprises part of the current Book Three, Starabella: Welcome to a Bright New World.


Our family made its own “New Beginning” by moving to the thriving island of Manhattan. Here were occupational and artistic opportunities. Plus, there was a network of support for Tara that was unavailable in Honolulu. Tara and Dana performed extensively in many special needs venues in their first years in New York. They are now on separate career paths but still collaborate on recording projects involving their music.

Through the combined efforts of the many parents journeying on their paths, advocating for their children, there are now better educational options for children with special needs. Parents must seek out which program best serves the needs of their individual child. For parents who feel that it compromises their children’s civil rights and optimal social and learning potential to be segregated into separate classrooms, more and more children are now members of inclusive classrooms.

When these programs are structured properly to meet the various needs of individual students, all children benefit. Being a member of a diverse learning environment prepares children to feel comfortable in our multicultural, diverse world. Through the Starabella stories, we hope to encourage this trend.

Children who listen to and view Books One and Two celebrate Starabella’s accomplishments, feel compassion for her extra challenges, root for her to reach her goals, and gain understanding of her emotions through her music. In this way, they acquire empathy for her by the time she enters kindergarten.

In Book One, children meet Starabella and follow her through babyhood and her early toddler years in the private world of her home. She is the focus of the attention of her family, and they do all they can to meet her needs.

In Book Two, children follow Starabella as she ventures into the community, where there are demands for conformity and expectations for appropriate behaviors and following the rules. She has the supervision, support, and guidance of her parents.

In Book Three, Starabella enters the public arena of kindergarten, where children begin to make their own behavior choices and form their own rules. It is important that they have the guidance in these formative years of caring teachers like Miss Maradise to help them make rules that serve the needs of the whole. This provides firsthand experience in being responsible members of a democratic community.

Starabella and her classmates model the behavior of children who embrace diversity in their friendships and make empathetic social choices. They all work cooperatively to achieve their mutual goal of getting to a “Bright New World.”

The journey of producing the Starabella books and recordings serves as a perfect example of the benefits of inclusion. Only through the diverse, creative talents and expertise of each contributor could Starabella and Company come to life.

To quote Mrs. Oclaif, “We are a lucky family,” in that we had the opportunity to participate together to produce the Starabella series. Although the inspiration for writing this story stemmed from serious issues and the desire to inspire empathy in children toward one another and provide the tools for change, its actual development brought Tara, Dana, my husband Marvin, and me much joy. We hope children everywhere will see how brilliantly their eyes will shine and how they become empowered when they have the courage to act on their own to reach out a hand to another child … and see that child reach out to another child and on and on and on. These are the hands that can unite the world. “It is only up to you.”2

1 In reference to the instrumental “I’m on My Way.”

2 Lyrics from “I Can Do What I Want to Do.”