NEW YORK (CBS 2) — A single phone call changed their lives forever and they had no idea it was coming.  Twenty two men and women were given the news they would be receiving half a million dollars — no strings attached.

When Dafnis Prieto, of New York City, sits down behind his drums, he is living his dreams.

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“This is the only place I can do anything I want and I don’t get punished by,” he told CBS 2’s Kathryn Brown.

Prieto began banging pots and pans as a little boy in Cuba and has grown into a talented jazz musician and composer. He’s making a name for himself in the music world, but still struggling to make ends meet.

“Not being able to perform as much as I wanted to,” he said.

Now, he has the unique freedom to pursue his dreams without worrying how to pay for them. Prieto is one of 22 men and women chosen this year as a MacArthur Foundation Fellow. They are creative prodigies that will each receive half a million dollars.

“I mean, I’m still trying to digest the news,” Prieto said.

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The grant winners were all chosen based on 3 criteria — exceptional creativity, past accomplishments and the promise of future potential. Among this year’s recipients were writers, scientists, artists and architects from all over the country.

The money is not intended as a reward, but rather an investment in creativity. Fellows can use the money any way they wish — whether that means advancing their current work or changing fields altogether.

Candidates don’t apply, they’re chosen by a secret selection committee and everything is kept confidential. including who nominated them.

“I have no idea. Nobody does. It would be great to know, but at the same time I appreciate him for appreciating me,” Prieto said.

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As for how Prieto plans to use the money, he’ll invest in his career and do things he’s only dreamed of. The grant money is given out over 5 years, but the fellows are not required to report how they spend it.