Keegan Russell and Keenan Miller are making music and having fun as the members of the band K-Rock. But the Grand Rapids musicians, who have autism, are also role models for what is possible.
With Russell on drums and Miller playing guitar, they often perform at Autism Support of Kent County events and fundraisers, and recently the band booked its first paying gig. Through their performances, they’ve had the opportunity to highlight what people with autism can do.
The musicians will receive this year’s Discover Ability Award at the Invest In Ability Gala, the Disability Advocates of Kent County’s annual event.
The two were nominated by Autism Support of Kent County because they “inspire others, and they show others what is possible when individuals are given a chance to shine.”
“Seeing these guys perform with such talent and joy shows the world that a disability doesn't need to define you, hold you back, or limit what you can do or be,” Autism Support of Kent County wrote in its nomination. “We are grateful for the guys of K-Rock for showing the world what they are capable of!”
Gala set for Nov. 16
The Discover Ability Award was first presented in 2015 at the suggestion of then-Mayor George Heartwell, who was the Invest in Ability Award winner that year. The award promotes efforts rooted in the spirit of inclusion and a community without barriers. Youths with disabilities who are engaged in leadership, advocacy, and empowerment of people with disabilities in Kent County are eligible to receive this honor.
K-Rock drummer Keegan Russell at band practice.
“The Discover Ability Award recognizes young people with disabilities who are making a difference for others with disabilities. We are proud to present this award to Keegan and Keenan, who are doing just that,” says Dave Bulkowski, Disability Advocates of Kent County’s longtime executive director.
Invest in Ability will take place on Nov. 16 at Frederik Meijer Gardens. Tickets are still available
. This year’s theme is "Growing into your Potential," and the gala will highlight youths and their growth using Disability Advocates of Kent County's programs and services.
Disability Advocates of Kent County works with youths ages 14 and over to pursue their employment goals. Many young people with disabilities struggle to find their first job or find a meaningful long-term career.
The agency helps these individuals determine their professional and independent living goals, then works with them to achieve these goals. Services provided include goal setting, job application review, resume and cover letter review, network support, mock interviews, identifying skills, workplace accommodation, communication skills, and independent living. Disability Advocates of Kent County offers workgroups and one-on-one peer mentoring.
Russell, 20, started playing the drums about seven years ago and picked it up quickly, says his mother, Holly Russell. His drum teacher was impressed and asked if Russell had any place he could perform because he would like to help him.
“There was the eighth-grade talent show, but you had to audition for it and there was a very limited number of spots,” Holly Russell says. “We decided he should try anyway. He auditioned and got a spot. His eighth-grade teacher was so excited – she said she had never had one of her kids from her class make it to the talent show before.
“The day of the show came and I could tell he was a little nervous. He had to perform in front of the entire school, which was close to a thousand kids. His drum teacher went out with him and gave him a beat. Keegan began to perform "Welcome to New York" by Taylor Swift. He nailed it!”
Audience members got on their feet and started clapping in rhythm. He finished his performance to thunderous applause. Since then, Russell has performed in many talent shows and has even played at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
Drummer Keegan Russell played at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 2021.
Russell has had several drum teachers over the years who have each contributed to his musical progress.
Being on the autism spectrum can make communication difficult for Keegan, says his mother.
“He sometimes struggles communicating his emotions, and music has helped bridge that gap for him,” she says. “Playing drums for people has helped alleviate the stress of social interactions.
Holly Russell says Keegan got to know Keenan during a theater show they were in. After Keegan had performed his drums, Keenan walked up to him and said, ‘“Keegan, I need a drummer.’” Keegan said, “OK,” and K-Rock was born.
“It makes Keegan happy when people like his music,” Holly Russell continues. “Sharing his gift with people brings him joy. He said he loved seeing people singing to K-Rock's music when they performed for the Disability Advocates Celebration. Keegan's dream is to someday be a rock star.”
‘Great role models’
Lynn Lowe, Miller’s mom, is grateful for the services Disability Advocates provided her son, including the organization’s Youth Transition team.
“Not that they set out to try to inspire youth with disabilities, but this has definitely been a side effect of the magic of K-Rock,” Lowe says. “Young peers in the disability community at their performances have been inspired to dance to the music, try out the drums, take the risk to share their own musical talent, and even be backup singers for the band.
“People with disabilities are often confronted with limits. A couple of guys from their community in a rock band are great role models of what is possible.”
Keenan "Red" Miller, 27, got his first guitar at age 6. He received his first music instruction at the Franciscan Center Music Therapy Program. By high school, he was teaching himself via YouTube videos. Miller enjoys playing a variety of genres and artists, especially oldies. In addition to being a solo artist, Keenan plays in a neighborhood band called the Porch Chops.
Miller met Russell at Autism Support of Kent County's Full Spectrum Players theater group. They formed K-Rock in 2022 and seemed to click right from their first practice session. They have enjoyed playing for a variety of events including parties, galas, and outdoor fundraisers.
When he's not playing music, Miller works at Corewell Health in the Environmental Services Department. Disability Advocates helped Miller with pre-employment training during the Project Search job training program. After he was hired by Corewell Health, Disability Advocates was invaluable in helping Miller and his parents understand the process of maintaining benefits with employment.
Miller currently lives at home, but has a goal to live independently. He is working with Disability Advocates on independent living as part of a training program through Oasis Community of West Michigan.
"It's great!” Miller says about the accolade that will be bestowed on him.
This article is a part of the multi-year series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.