Monday, September 10, 2012


Back on August 11, 2012, there was the slightest tinge of fall in the air. Not enough to really notice, but when you’ve lived in Alabama all your life, as I have, you tend to become aware of that moment, usually sometime in mid-August,  when the humidity lifts ever so slightly, making it feel less like a convection oven outside than it has been for the previous four months. The temperature may still be in the low 90s, but when the humidity lets up even a fraction of a percentage, you can feel it in the air. An interesting coincidence, since the first time I walked outside on August 11 and noticed that lightness in the air, I was heading out to a local department store where the teenagers in the arts program that I founded for people with special needs were performing at a back-to-school fashion show.

Project UP students and I at the Belk fashion show performance

My program is called The Johnny Stallings Arts Program (JSAP) and through its five components, provides visual and performing arts education, along with social and cultural activities, to children, teens and adults with a variety of special needs like Down syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy. I’ve decided to start blogging about these programs and my life because of how profoundly I’ve been affected by having relationships with people who have special needs and their families. When I started my program in 2008, I had no experience of any sort with people who have disabilities. Almost immediately, I knew I had found my life’s calling. I have learned more in the past four years from people who society tells us are “less than” than I’ve ever learned from my typical peers.

So anyway, eight of Project UP’s girls performed a hip hop routine at the fashion show and did a fantastic job, as always. We actually have 26 students that are both boys and girls, ages 13-21, in Project UP, but there were only eight girls who were available to participate. Project UP performed first, followed by a children’s theatre group performing songs from their production of Annie, followed by the fashion show. After Project UP performed, they sat in reserved seats with me to watch the Annie performers and the parade of back-to-school outfits.  On my left was an 18-year-old student who has autism and on my right was a 13-year-old who has a developmental disability. I have no idea what her actual diagnosis is.
After working with my students for four years now, I no longer care to know what their diagnosis is, unless it’s something life threatening, like a peanut allergy. When I first started my program, I wanted to know everything about each child’s diagnosis, but now I realize that it doesn’t matter. I care what their diagnosis is - be it Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism or something else - about as much as I care what color their hair is. It simply makes no difference to me anymore because the children, teens and adults that I know are so much more than their diagnosis.

At any rate, while the lead actress was singing “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow,” the girl on my left was rocking back and forth and repeating to me over and over, “She sings really good. I like her singing. She sings really good, I like her singing.” I agreed with her, and added, “You guys sing really good too!” She then said, “Yes, we sing really good. We are really good singers. We sing really good.”

The girl on my right leaned in and asked me what we were talking about. I said, “We are talking about how well that little girl can sing.” She agreed with me. Then I said, “You guys sing really good too! Y’all sing as good as she does.” The girl looked at me quizzically and said, “What did you say?” I repeated, “Y’all sing as good as that little girl does.” She looked at me with the most dumbfounded expression on her face and answered with a great deal of disdain, “WHAT in the WORLD are you talking about? We do NOT sing as good as that girl and you know it.” I cracked up laughing - at her vehement disagreement with me, at her sarcastic retort. And then I hugged her and said, “You know what? You’re right. You guys do not sing nearly as good as that little girl does. But I love the way you sing anyway.”

She accepted my comment with a nod of her head, as if she was telling me, “Now, that’s more like it.” She wanted my honesty - she didn’t want my compliments if they weren’t truthful. She wanted me to shoot straight with her and when I did, she accepted the truth.

No, the students in Project UP cannot sing as well as that little girl. And they know it. But that does nothing to dampen their enthusiasm for singing, which is exactly what I love about them and is why listening to the Project UP kids sing is better to me than when I sat on the front row for Celine Dion’s show in Vegas and watched her sing a French lullaby directly to my husband, Alan.

The sort of singing - and dancing and acting - that the kids in Project UP do is the purest form of artistic expression, in my humble opinion, because when they sing, or dance, or act, they are doing it simply because they have the urge to express themselves through that art form. They aren’t concerned with form, pedagogy, tone, technique; they aren’t concerned with anyone’s reaction to their performance. While they do love a standing ovation, they don’t perform for applause or approval. They perform simply because they want to and because they can. I have been lucky enough to see some amazing artistic performances, from Broadway to London’s West End, even getting to have a private meet and greet with Paul McCartney before attending his concert in Vegas in 2005. Nothing I’ve ever seen can even come close to the pure artistic expression I see each time I watch our Project UP kids perform. To me, they embody what being an artist really is, and that’s why Alan and I, and our organization, have devoted ourselves to providing access to arts education and performance opportunities to people with special needs. I hope I will continue to have chances to see amazing professional artists perform but if I never get the chance to go to New York or to a concert again, it won’t matter. I’ve got Project UP’s performances to see, and that’s more than enough for me.

-Debra Jenkins, Chairman

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