Villa Grove woman with blindness, autism enjoys performance experience

VILLA GROVE — Singer and keyboardist Kari Kinnett has special talents and special challenges.

Both of which qualified Kinnett, who is blind and autistic, for the Special Talents America competition.

The 22-year-old from Villa Grove was chosen as a finalist in the regional competition. The top nine contestants from a four-state region were given the star treatment at the final live performance event.

Kinnett did not finish in the top three, but she was chosen as the performer to close the show, which was held at Wentz Concert Hall in Naperville and featured singers, dancers and other performers with a variety of disabilities.

"She loved the whole entire experience," said her mom, Amy Kinnett. "She was in a fantastic mood from the time we left the house."

Kari Kinnett sent in an audition video of her singing "All Jacked Up" by Gretchen Wilson after her grandmother saw an announcement for the contest in The News-Gazette. She performed the same song live at the competition to the delight of the crowd.

"She was definitely a crowd pleaser," Amy Kinnett said.

Kari Kinnett says she is rarely nervous on stage and enjoys the audience interaction of live performances.

"I like songs that are upbeat and include crowd participation," she said. "I enjoy hearing the audience sing with me."

She has been singing and entertaining people for most of her life. She was born prematurely at a military base in Guam, which was not equipped to care for at-risk babies. So she was sent to a medical center at Clark Air Force base in the Philippines, where she was diagnosed with retinopathy of prematurity.

Five eye surgeries followed in the first six months of her life, but her sight was never established.

When she was in grade school, experts were able to distinguish her autistic symptoms from similar mannerisms of those afflicted with blindness.

Kinnett's aptitude for music also became apparent at an early age. Her mom has a studio recording of her singing the "Barney" theme song at age 2. On her fifth birthday, she received a keyboard and started playing by ear.

She is now considered a musical savant for her piano talents.

"Growing up, music was her way of relating to other people," Amy Kinnett said. "With autism, it was hard to relate to general life experiences.

"We made up songs about everything from brushing teeth to ordering McDonalds."

Mom and daughter would play musical games together by singing and switching harmony parts while Kari Kinnett was still very young.

When she was about 7 years old, the mother-daughter duo began performing at local nursing homes, churches and malls. They were also invited to perform at the Illinois State Fair. Kari Kinnett also became the All-Star National Talent Winner through a youth pageant program at age 9.

"Singing with my mom is the best experience I've ever done in my life," she said. "I've made friends with other good singers, but they're not going to support me like my mom.

"She's always telling me 'Sing it, girl, sing it!'"

The duo put performances on hiatus when Kari Kinnett entered the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired at Jacksonville for her studies.

"She got to a point where puberty was starting to hit, and she needed to be around friends and people she could connect with," Amy Kinnett said.

Kari Kinnett is now finished at the school and has returned home to pursue her musical career again. The recent competition has gotten her back into performing, and she has aspirations of auditioning for the next season of "America's Got Talent." She also is working on improving her songwriting skills.

Her music can be heard on Sirius XM channels such as The Blend and The Coffee House.

The determined young woman hopes to one day perform national and internationally.

"I feel like my dream search is over," she said.

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