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Veteran to debut song at Yes of America United's annual F.A.I.R.

William Justiniano's inspiration for these lyrics is his own life story.

I didn't know what to do;

Where to go; where to start;

What door I will open?

What door I will close?

It's a difficult choice.

The 55-year-old U.S. Army veteran wrote the song Together as One not only as a way to recount the struggles he continues to overcome, but to inspire others to do the same.

"You can't do it alone," the Wesley Chapel resident said. "That's what I want everyone to know."

For Justiniano, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia 20 years ago and is unable to work as a result, the song is also a tribute to the Tampa-based nonprofit, Yes of America United.

"When people tell me, 'No, I can't,' I say 'Yes, I can,'" he said enthusiastically. "It gives me strength."

Justiniano will debut his song in a performance with fellow veterans at the organization's seventh annual Family Abilities Information Rally (F.A.I.R.) on Saturday at All People's Life Center in Tampa. The event has grown every year and is expected to draw close to 2,000 attendees and more than 100 vendors.

According to Yes founder and executive director Becki Forsell, the F.A.I.R., like her organization, strives to show everyone in the community the importance of inclusion.

"It's a different way of looking at life," said Forsell, who lost her vision after a surgical procedure. "We are not our disability."

That's a mantra Justiniano embodies. He put aside his musical hobbies while serving in the military. Now, music plays center stage in his life thanks to encouragement not only from Forsell, but other veterans and staff members at the Tampa VA Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

Justiniano takes part in out-patient services at the center, which uses the creative arts alongside traditional treatments to help veterans and de-stigmatize mental illness.

"A lot of veterans have wounded souls," said Rachel L. Brink, chief of the recovery center. "Music helps them express what they can't express in words."

Forsell struck up a friendship with Brink and Justiniano a few years back, after Yes volunteers started to help facilitate services for veterans from the clinic.

Justiniano regularly takes part in music programs at the VA, participating in drum circles and even leading a veteran band and chorus called Together as One. Justiniano's involvement has played an enormous role in his recovery and healing.

"William's self-esteem is 180 degrees," Brink said. "He feels good about himself, he enjoys teaching and getting back into the community through playing. He's trying new things. He's blossomed."

Justiniano, a married father of five adult children, says he's a different person when he performs.

"I forget about my disability, my physical and mental problems," he said. "I'm in a different world."

Forsell designed the F.A.I.R. so that people living with disabilities and those who are not can enjoy the day together. There will be entertainment groups (including the VA drum circle and the Together as One band and choir), food trucks, a petting zoo, and vendors from as far away as Boston.

Attendees can get their name made into braille, tour a sensory room to better understand what life is like for people living with blindness and even try out a zayak, a kayak created for people with disabilities.

"I want them to have a smile on their face, to feel more empowered and know they are equal," Forsell said. "No one should be looked at differently."

Added Justiniano: "I want everyone to understand there are people with disabilities, but that doesn't make them different. Everyone has some kind of condition and you have to deal with it."

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