Nolan Dauer, red shirt, and Donovan Light practice their routines for marching band in the south lot of Smoky Hill High School, Aug. 31, after school. Dauer and Light perform as a duo during the marching band routines and performances. Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | Donovan Light’s musical talent emerged at an early age. 

He started piano lessons in the first grade, and then he learned to play trumpet when he was in sixth grade. 

His parents say there are many musicians in their family, and they believe the benefits of music are lifelong.

Barbara and Andrew, his mom and dad, always encouraged him to pursue his passions, even though they knew they’d have to make accommodations for him. 

Donovan lives with spina bifida, a birth defect where the spinal cord does not develop properly. It confines him to a wheelchair. And while his parents have supported Donovan and let him explore his interests, he has found success in music. 

Rather than sitting at a piano or a music stand, Donovan plays the trumpet in his school’s marching band, and not from the sidelines.

Donovan Light, black shirt, and Nolan Dauer pose for a portrait during they marching band practice, Aug. 31 at Smoky Hill High School. Donovan plays the trumpet while he and Nolan perform routines during marching band performances. Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Barbara didn’t know it was even a possibility until his teachers encouraged him. 

His middle school band teacher was the first to suggest it. And Zak Ruffert, the band director at Smoky Hill High School, got him rolling. 

Donovan was excited to get on the field with his trumpet, “and I remember thinking, ‘How is this going to work?” Barbara recalled. “Is Dad going to have to get fitted for a band uniform?”

Unsure how it actually would work, Zak offered to write a show allowing the band to march around Donovan, if needed. 

That’s when Nolan Dauer got involved, and the special choreography became unnecessary.

A chance encounter during their seventh grade lunch period at Laredo Middle School brought the two boys together. Donovan was new to the school when he saw Nolan at a table playing a card game with a group of students. He joined in. 

The two high school seniors are best friends.

COVID-19 prevented marching bands during their first year of high school. The following year, Nolan said he felt burnt out from playing trumpet, but that he still enjoyed music. That’s when he got the idea to get Donovan on the field by pushing his wheelchair in the marching band.

At first, Donovan was skeptical.

“Like does he really want to do this?” Donovan said.

Eventually, he became convinced Nolan really did want to team up with him in marching band as an unusual duo.

Nolan Dauer, red shirt, and Donovan Light get and give high fives to the fellow marching band members, Aug. 31 during a practice at Smoky Hill. Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

“I gathered the fact that he does really want to help me, and I definitely agreed to it because I thought it would be fun for us. And so far it has.” Donovan said. 

For three years, Nolan has marched Donovan’s wheelchair during their halftime performances at home football games while donning the same black-and-green uniform as everyone else in the band.

Barbara points to the success. It was like “the fates aligned to have this all work out in such an organic and positive manner.”

During his decades-long career, Zak has seen wheelchair-bound students on the sidelines, usually playing some kind of drum. However, Nolan has allowed Donovan to march and play just like all the other musicians on the field. 

“Anybody, even our students, can look at this situation and appreciate the effort that Nolan’s put into it,” Zak said. The effort makes Donovan feel like he’s just another member of the band.

He added that Donovan and Nolan have solved all kinds of choreography challenges together. Nolan starts pushing the wheelchair early to build momentum when they’re marching on the football field. 

Donovan said that they’ve worked out a system so he doesn’t jerk forward during fast stops and when making tight 90-degree turns. 

“I’m the first person in our whole band to try this out. So, trying to basically pioneer an entirely different marching style. That took a little bit of practice, but eventually kind of got it down,” Nolan said. 

Nolan Dauer, red shirt, and Donovan Light practice their routines for marching band in the south lot of Smoky Hill High School, Aug. 31, after school. Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Zak said the pair work seamlessly with the rest of the marching band, and that he trusts them completely. 

They performed during their first halftime show of their last high school year together. They still have a handful of shows and two marching-band competitions left. 

“I am amazed at their accomplishments and proud of their growth,” Barbara said. “We get excited that he is a part of something bigger and fits in this amazing group of kids. It is wonderful to watch the acceptance and camaraderie of the band.”

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  1. Love this story so much! We have a young granddaughter with spina bifida who is also wheelchair-bound. It is good to know there are caring people/kids who are willing to help kids who have more challenges than most to achieve what would have normally been impossible. Thank you for sharing this uplifting story!

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