|Elianna and Austin walking on-stage at Panoply 2009|
The volunteer component is one of the most unique things about our program. Each child is paired with a volunteer - or a coach as we call them - who provides whatever level of assistance that child requires. For kids like Elianna with mobility issues, that means complete physical support so that she can actually dance. For other kids, they may require less physical assistance but more help staying on task, or maybe for another with a language delay, their coach provides communication. Our teens commit to helping one child for a semester at a time, so that our students have a consistent presence with them, someone who can learn over time what they need help with the most.
I've said over and over that I never know who to be more proud of - our students or our coaches, because the accomplishments of both groups are remarkable. We have over 80 teenagers who give their time week in and week out, kids who are already busy with theatre groups, show choirs, dance studios, cheerleading squads, dance teams and more. The coaches become so attached to their students, so invested in their success, that unless it’s final exam time, or maybe prom time, they rarely miss a class. It has been wonderful to watch the relationships that have formed between the coaches and their students, relationships that develop into babysitting gigs, shared outings, both families joining together to celebrate birthdays and graduations. So far, we’ve had at least three volunteers that I know of who have graduated and headed off to college with a major of either special education or physical therapy because of their experience with our students.
When Austin graduated from high school and was preparing to head to Ole Miss for his freshman year of college, I couldn’t get his attention about what he needed to take for his dorm room. What sort of bedspread to you want? I don’t care. Have you talked to your roommate about which one of you is bringing a TV? No. Have you packed your sheets and towels yet? I’ll do it later. It was very irritating, to say the least, that Austin had no interest in helping me prepare what he would need in his dorm room. One day, I said - okay, I yelled - “Are you planning to help me pack your things for college at all? Do you have any concern for what you take with you for school?” He answered, “The only thing I care about taking to school with me is the painting Elianna drew for me for graduation.” Seriously. The only thing he really cared about having in his freshman dorm room was a painting Elianna did, all blue and red for Ole Miss, with the words “I love you Austin” written by her.
We had another handsome fellow who volunteered all four years of high school with us. Decorian graduated in May and is currently at Birmingham Southern College on a full scholarship for musical theatre. Not only is he a talented singer/actor, Decorian is also a songwriter, a gifted guitarist and was a star on his school’s football team. He’s also quite the lady’s man and freely admits that the reason he started volunteering with us was because “Merrimack Hall is where all the cute babes hang out.” Decorian was always paired with a boy, which is our practice, but he developed a close relationship with a little girl with Down syndrome right off the bat. They seemed to be drawn to each other by a force greater than either of them. Whenever he walked in the door, she would run across the room and fling herself into his arms. At the time, she wasn’t verbal but it didn’t take words for her to express that she adored Decorian and was thrilled to see him each week.
One afternoon, I was visiting with Decorian in the lobby before class when his cell phone rang. As he answered it, of course the screen lit up. He was holding it where I could plainly see what photo he was using as his screen saver. And when I saw that his screen saver was a picture of him holding the little girl, I immediately got tears in my eyes. What good-looking, popular, big-man-on-campus chooses a photo of himself holding a little girl with Down syndrome as the screen saver on his phone? A remarkable one, if you ask me.
It’s stories like these that let me know that while we are certainly having a positive effect on the lives of our students, who are routinely denied access to participation in activities like arts education, we are having an equally profound effect on the teenagers who volunteer with us. I know that many of Austin’s friends at college asked him about the child’s drawing he had hanging over his bed and that he told them all about Elianna. And I know that Decorian has been impacted by each of the children he worked with. So who knows who’s benefitting more - the kids or the coaches? And the bottom line is who cares! Lives are being changed every day by the pairing of “typical” kids with “special needs” kids and that’s all that matters.
Debra Jenkins, Chairman