JACKSON, Tenn. (AP) — In an empty room at West Tennessee Transitional Care, Maria "Sunshine" Tatman, 21, propped her cane against a wall and prepared for her next performance.
Tatman, who is visually impaired, has been singing for assisted living residents in Jackson for about three months now, finding her voice through her love of sunshine and help from family and friends.
"If it hadn't been for the STAR Center and Jeff, I would not be what I'm doing right now. I would not be the sunshine storyteller I am," Tatman said.
Tatman is a spokeswoman and storyteller at the STAR Center, working and volunteering two days a week since April of last year.
Maria Sunshine, as she is known, said her favorite songs to sing are "You are My Sunshine" and "Sunshine on My Shoulders."
Debby Jernigan, director of program development at the STAR Center, says that Tatman is a ray of sunshine at the center and even has her office painted yellow, mirroring her personality.
"She loves people, to help people," Jernigan said, "(and) does her best to help create sunshine in their lives."
Tatman found her voice through the assistance of her guitarist, Jeff Woods, who encouraged her to sing.
Tatman met Woods at Camp Wings, a camp for grieving children held every August, through her father, Woody Tatman, who is a grief counselor at the camp.
When Tatman was invited to perform for the Camp Wings talent show in August, everyone was blown away.
"We were all struck by Maria," said Woods, who had accompanied her story with guitar, "We thought right then, 'We need to get Maria involved all the time with Camp Wings.'
"We're hoping she can make a whole life out of this," Woods said.
Tatman has been attending the STAR Center since she was 5. According to Tatman, the center helped her concentrate on her strengths instead of weaknesses, encouraged her to believe in herself and helped her feel like she could make a difference.
"The STAR Center has always been there to encourage me to accomplish my goals," Tatman said. "Even if I didn't think I could, and the STAR Center has always been there to support me through each challenge I faced."
While she was in school, she regularly attended the STAR Center, taking art and music therapy in the learning lab to enhance her problem-solving and math skills.
Tatman graduated in 2011 from North Side High School and has a regular diploma. After graduation, she took a job tracks program at the center, preparing for a job of her own and participating in mobility training to help her get around safely by herself.
"Without their assistance, I wouldn't be able to do what I want to do in life," Tatman said.
Besides singing at transitional care, Tatman has ventured to numerous nursing homes in the Jackson area, including Forest Cove Nursing Home every Monday afternoon.
She also has performed at Oz Rare & Used Books in Downtown Jackson.
Tatman's favorite part about singing is the joy it brings to the residents to whom she tells stories and sings, she said.
"The best part about that feeling is making (the residents) feel good," Tatman said. "One of the residents just literally teared up."
Woods believes that Tatman is a sign of positivity to those around her, clearly evident from her smile and her sunshine nickname.
"She is just an encouragement, and I hope she can help people, too," Woods said.