Blind since age 4, Autumn Michels had only one dream when she became a high school freshman this year: to play the clarinet and perform on the football field with the school’s marching band.
“I’ve always loved music and I wanted more than anything to march,” the 14-year-old from Laingsburg, Michigan, tells PEOPLE, “but I wasn’t sure how that would work out.”
Enter Rachael Steffens.
The Laingsburg High School senior met Autumn at a summer band camp and volunteered when school started to give up playing the cymbals on the field so that she could be Autumn’s eyes during marching events.
“I had helped her at band camp,” says Rachael, 17, “and we’d become close friends. I’m in admiration of Autumn’s positive attitude and her great sense of humor. She deserves a chance to march with the rest of the band, and I’m happy to make that happen.”
At school, Autumn can find her way to her classes with a cane, but marching in formation on an uneven football field is another matter. With Rachael in step behind her, though, firmly gripping her shoulders, she knows exactly which direction to turn.
- Need a little inspiration? Click here to subscribe to the Daily Smile Newsletter for uplifting, feel-good stories that brighten up your inbox.
“She steers me and I’m able to keep up with everybody else just fine,” says Autumn. “I’m having an amazing experience with the band, thanks to Rachael.”
Life has always been challenging for the petite teen, “but she’s never given up and has just found new ways of doing things,” says Autumn’s mother, Angie Michels, who works as a dental hygienist in Laingsburg. “From the very beginning, she’s brought people into her life through her smiles and positivity.”
After an inoperable brain tumor was found near Autumn’s optic nerve when she was 7 months old, her vision steadily worsened until surgeons operated when she was 4 to remove as much of the tumor as they could.
“Because the tumor had damaged her optic nerve,” says Autumn’s father, Jason, an information technologist for the state of Michigan, “we elected to have it removed. Some of the tumor is inoperable and is still there, and there was a real possibility up until her latest MRI a few weeks ago, that it could take her life. Thankfully, we now have the best news ever — it’s finally reached the stage where it’s not going to grow much any more.”
The oldest of three children (sister Kendall is 8 and brother Jace is 4), Autumn learned to play the clarinet as a sixth-grader, memorizing each song so quickly that it didn’t matter whether she could see sheet music.
“She’s always caught on very quickly,” Angie tells PEOPLE, “and music right away became her passion.”
Living in a non-sighted world has never bothered her daughter, who describes yellow as “sunshine and warmth” and red as “love and roses.”
“Yes, there is darkness,” says Autumn, “but I’ve learned to ‘see’ things in other ways.” Through description and touch, “I know colors and flowers and a blue sky,” she tells PEOPLE. “I really don’t mind not having my vision because it helps me to see everyone in my life equally.”
At least one person, though, rises above the rest.
“Rachael is the best friend anyone could have,” says Autumn, “and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to thank her enough for what she’s doing.”
Rachael, who plans to major in musical theater in college once she graduates, says she can’t imagine spending her senior year any other way.
“I still get to play my cymbals in the stands, and I’ve had the experience of marching before,” she tells PEOPLE. “Guiding Autumn on the field and seeing how much she enjoys it is making my last year in high school a memorable one. It’s been a lot of fun for both of us.”