The 16-year-old junior leads praise band every Wednesday at her school’s chapel, singing and strumming her guitar to some of her favorite Christian songs as well as a few secular pop, alternative rock and indie selections. She and the other members spend an hour every school day practicing, arranging songs and deciding on set lists.
“Our goal is to focus on worship and giving to God,” she said.
But Onley’s music was just one of her many hobbies, including year-round competitive swimming and mentoring younger girls in her school’s chapter of Girl Talk, a student-to-student girls’ mentoring program, until a year ago when a 4-year-old girl taught her that her passion could help others.
Last year, Onley joined her classmates headed to volunteer at an orphanage in Puerto Rico. While her friends played and talked to the children, she pulled out her guitar and began singing pop songs, many of which she records and uploads to video-sharing websites.
One little girl, a child with severe Asperger syndrome, took notice.
“I started playing and some of the kids started listening, but that girl kept walking around and pacing,” she said. “I turned my focus away and looked back and she sat on the sofa for, like, 45 minutes while I played guitar. I had translators and some of the nurses running up to me, like, ‘What did you do? What did you sing? How did you just get her to calm down?’ I was just doing what I love to do.”
After returning from the trip, Onley’s mother Cathi showed her an article about music therapy. It put a definition on what Onley felt that day at the orphanage.
“Music helps so much with brain development and connecting with people,” she said. “So after that, I really dove in. I was, like, this is such a God wink.”
This spring, Onley will intern with an Atlanta-based licensed music therapist. After graduation, she hopes to attend a small liberal arts college where she plans to major in both music and psychology with the goal to eventually open her own music therapy firm.
But before setting sights on her future career, Onley tried out for “American Idol” over the summer. She was cut just one round before getting to perform for the celebrity judges.
“It was so frustrating but it was the coolest experience ever,” she said. “That just showed me that I wanted to focus on praise band. The day before I auditioned, we had chapel and I played an original song and I had people come up and thank me for singing and leading at Mount Vernon. It’s so cool that by just doing what I love to do I can change people’s hearts without even knowing it.”
Onley has a 3.7 grade point average and has not taken the SAT yet. She is the daughter of Reide and Cathi Onley of Buckhead. She has one sister, Claudia, 14.