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Pianist embraces 'purpose'

When Mary Grace Gellekanao was born in the Philippines more than 27 years ago, she emerged from the womb with a couple of handicaps.

Her right arm ends in a stump. Her right leg is short, skinny and ends in a foot with three toes.

She endured years of taunts and embarrassment. "When I was growing up, I had a difficult time accepting that I was born this way," she said in a telephone interview from Denham Springs, La., where she has lived for four years.

"I used to question God, asking, 'What did I do to be born like this?' I didn't have any friends. I was never invited to parties and was shunned by people."

Two changes, gifts from her maternal grandmother, made a huge difference in her life. "My grandmother taught me about Jesus," said Gellekanao — who drops her last name professionally. "I've grown close to him as the years go by. I have learned I was created this way for a special purpose. I've become dependent on him."

Then there is her music, which she'll bring to Modesto and Sonora later this month. "My grandmother saw my interest in playing the piano. I started lessons when I was 6 years old. The first three teachers she tried didn't want me — they didn't want a one-handed student. My grandmother told them to teach me with one hand and she'd pay for two. The fourth teacher took me."

Over the years, she's learned to adapt. "I used regular sheet music, but I had to modify them a lot because my stump can only play the melody or the note next to it," she said.

But don't think the modifications make the music simple.

"The pieces she played were complex and beautiful," one reviewer wrote, "and it was overwhelming to hear such emotion and talent reverberate through the auditorium as Grace thundered through intricate arrangements or delicately stroked the ivory keys with quiet tones."

The pianist plays "contemporary and traditional Christian music, some classic and some love songs," she said.

Her favorite piece is "My Tribute," by internationally known pastor and composer Andrae Crouch. She usually ends with the piece, which she said expresses her praise to God.

Offerings taken during the performance will support a mission group she founded, Adopt a Minister International. The nonprofit agency provides financial assistance for unemployed pastoral graduates in the Philippines and Third World countries. The funds often help such pastors work at small churches that have few resources.

Sales of her CDs and DVDs pay for her travel expenses.