“If you were to walk into the art room right now, the first thing that would happen is everybody in there would yell ‘hi,’ and they would want to know you,” Daryll Borges says. “That’s exactly what happened to me. It was overwhelming at first, but at the same time, it was the neatest thing I’d ever experienced.”
He’s absolutely right. The first thing that happens when I walk into the art room of the Ralph and Betty Englestad Campus of Opportunity Village—a local charitable organization devoted to helping people with intellectual disabilities to find their footing in the community, and even to get jobs—is that shouted greeting. It’s boisterous and genuinely friendly, and it takes me aback even though Borges told me to expect it.
Then, suddenly, a woman I’ve never before met runs up to me and takes my hand, declaring, “I know him! I know him!” She introduces me to several of her friends, and then our tour moves on to another room, where I’m greeted in much the same way. Opportunity Village calls the members of its community
“OVIPs”—a portmanteau of “OV” and, obviously, “VIP”—and for as long as you’re there, they make you feel just that important.
“I think Ellen DeGeneres once said that everybody should know what it feels like to walk into a building and have people applaud for them,” Borges says, grinning. “And man, I got it.”
Borges, a youthful-looking 48, knows a little something about the adulation of crowds. As a working musician with 28 years of experience, he’s been receiving applause for most of his adult life. These days, he gets it in his role as a substitute Robin Gibb in the Australian Bee Gees Show at the Excalibur. (And he’s brilliant; he vanishes into the role so thoroughly that I didn’t recognize him until I was told.)
Borges may know applause, but he’s never before known the kind that greeted him the first time he toured Opportunity Village. This wasn’t polite applause for playing a good riff, or like the cheering he justly receives for “Stayin’ Alive.” This was the kind of applause one gets for simply being alive, and we get it all too rarely.
Perhaps that’s what made Borges decide to become OV’s music mentor. It’s his job to teach music and performance to the OVIPs—some as young as 18 years old. His workspace is a full-on rehearsal room, loaded with guitars, drums, keyboards—virtually everything you could want to make music with. And he leads a group of OVIPs called the Roaring Thunder, which plays concerts on the campus and around the city, most recently at the Historic Fifth Street School as part of the Vegas Unplugged Music Festival.
It’s just a theory of mine—but I think that Borges wants to share the warm and gratified feeling he got when he first came to the campus. He wants the OVIPs to know what it’s like to get applause.
“I think we should all be rock stars,” he says.
Borges, originally of Napa Valley, California, came to Las Vegas in 1998, when gigs for working musicians were pretty much growing on trees.
“I was working full time, five or six nights a week. At that time, you could do that,” he says. He held down steady gigs at local lounges and clubs, playing the Rio’s Voodoo Lounge for a six-year stretch. And he just might have stayed on that path … if the economy hadn’t tanked in 2009.
“People were getting rid of their bands right and left. I ended up playing as a hired gun for whoever wanted to hire me,” he says.
Some time later, in January 2011, a friend suggested that he apply for the music mentor position at Opportunity Village. At the time, Borges was resistant to the idea, telling his friend, “I’ve never worked with people with disabilities. I’m a performer. This is what I do. I don’t teach.”
One applause-filled tour later, he changed his tune.
“To my shock, I got hired,” Borges says. “And I thought, ‘Well, now what?’”
Borges decided to start with what he knew best: the drum kit, his go-to instrument since he was a child.
“Drums are a great thing to educate on,” he says. “It helps with motor skills, hand-eye coordination, hearing and teamwork.” He regularly holds percussion classes in “drum circle style,” an arrangement that allows him to connect with several students at once.
“I make sure they know there’s no mistakes, and they only need to be in the moment and just play,” he says. “When that happens, I’ll look at each one of them and I’ll see them staring at the ceiling or out the window—and I know that’s when they’re in the zone.”
Delivering OVIPs to that place is his daily mission, and he takes great pleasure from it—whether he’s helping a student to realize a tune plunked out on “a little tinker-toy piano” brought from home, or guiding another to an instrument he doesn’t know all that well:
“I have one student here, Michael. I started with him on piano, and I noticed him looking at the drums, and I asked him if he wanted to play the drums … but because they were loud, he didn’t want to do it. Then one day, he just decided to play the drums, so I started him on the electronic kit, because you could control the volume on those. He eventually moved over to the acoustic set, and for someone who never played drums before, he just picked it up like that. It’s great, because he and I have this great love for KISS, so we’re always learning KISS songs.”
Oftentimes, his OVIPs end up expanding his horizons. Sure, he’s had to learn his share of songs from High School Musical and to play most of the current top 40, but every now and again, someone throws him a real curveball.
“When I first started working here, there was a girl who wanted to learn the title track to her favorite animé, and it was in Japanese,” Borges says. “I said, ‘OK, we’re on this journey together. I don’t know Japanese. You don’t know Japanese. I can help you with the music, but I’m going to learn Japanese, too.’ I knew entertainers who worked in Cirque who spoke Japanese, and they helped me out with it.
“It was a learning process for me, which is what I love about this job. I love when somebody comes to me and says, ‘Hey, I want to learn an Italian aria.’ We did it, and that girl performed it in our spring show and … not a dry eye in the house, including mine.”
For someone who wasn’t sure he could teach music to people with disabilities, it’s impossible to imagine Borges doing anything but. He refers to his students as his peers: “I’m a professional musician, and I’m teaching everybody what that’s like.” To hear him talk about his work, it’s clear he believes that the bad economy ultimately enriched him in ways he could never have predicted.
“I’ve seen people with behavioral problems come in here who have just completely changed,” he says. “I’ve had people that were nonverbal who just suddenly speak, and you have that moment: ‘Wait, did I just hear that?’ There’s just something about music.”
One night, the OVIPs go to see Borges in his nighttime guise with the Australian Bee Gees. Curiously, Borges has pre-show jitters:
“I’m more nervous about that show than I have ever been about anything,” he says. “I told the guys in the group, ‘Just be prepared; you’re going to hear a crowd scream like you’ve never heard a crowd scream. These guys are enthusiastic, and when they like something, they’re going to let you know about it.’”
They do. When the Australian Bee Gees begin laying down disco beats, the dance floor is instantly packed, and the crowd goes positively wild. They applaud every song as if hearing it for the first time ever, and when Borges introduces “our friends from Opportunity Village,” they explode in cheers—appreciation for their teacher, appreciation for the music, appreciation for being alive.
And their teacher, disguised as Robin Gibb, allows himself an expression of unabashed pride and joy.
“I’m so fortunate,” Borges says. “I’ve performed music for a long time, and then I fell into a day job in which I get to still be involved with music. And it’s a much more gratifying thing, for me, than performing it, to give it.”