Sunday, October 14, 2012

State Dance Champions

Last March, we chartered a bus and traveled to Bessemer, where Project UP's junior and senior companies participated in a dance competition. They were the only competitors who had special needs - or should I say they were the only competitors who had obvious special needs, since we've already established, thanks to Abbey, that everyone has special needs.

Abbey playing drums during summer camp
At any rate, there were a couple hundred dance studios from across the state who entered in this competition, where they were being judged on everything from the originality of their choreography to their costumes and of course, on their execution, training and precision as they performed their numbers. There was an astounding amount of young talent in the large auditorium where the competition was held, and hundreds of people there to support the competitors.

Project UP's junior company entered a jazz dance number. There were 8 girls in the piece, aged 13-15, several of them new to our programs and not experienced in performing in front of a large audience. The veterans of the group kept the newcomers calm as they prepared to perform. But there was one glitch that had us all worried. Because of the set up of the auditorium, there was no place for Hayley to stand so that she could cue and direct the kids. Normally, Hayley finds a place in front of the kids so that she can offer them direction, remind them of upcoming changes in formation and, in general, give them the support they need to remember their dances. But at this huge competition, there was no way for her to be positioned anywhere that would allow the kids to see her. They were on their own - completely - for the first time ever.

Hayley helping the kids on stage during rehearsals
They took the stage with tentative grins on their faces. By the second 8-count, we could tell they had found their rhythm and were "killing it." As they progressed through the choreography, we could see their confidence take over and saw them do the routine to perfection, never missing a cue or a step. All of us were blown away by their performance. A spontaneous standing ovation broke out in the audience, with the loudest cheering I've ever heard at one of these competitions - and believe me, people cheer loudly for their kids at these events. But the applause for our kids was the loudest, most genuine and most inspired cheering I've ever experienced.

As the kids exited the stage, Anna G. collapsed in her mothers arms, sobbing inconsolably. We all feared something had happened, like an injury, because of the way Anna G. was crying. We all kept asking her what was wrong and when she finally could breathe enough to tell us what was the matter, here's what she said: "I'm just so happy. We did it."

Anna C. Katie and Anna G. clowning around
Of course, every one of us broke down at that moment too. Anna G. stated something profound in those two little sentences. She was just so happy that she had conquered a challenge, risen to the occasion and for the first time ever, performed a dance number with no assistance from her teacher. She was proud of herself, proud of her team and relieved that they had accomplished something so huge. That was a moment that I will never forget.

Together, the Junior and Senior Companies performed another number and received the same support and enthusiasm from the audience. And then it was time for the awards.

At a dance competition, all the participants are called on stage and the MC announces the winners in each of the categories. I was proud enough just to see our kids sitting on stage, surrounded by typical dancers - "normal" kids who are able to dance without the barriers our kids have to overcome. And then the unthinkable happened. Both of our dance numbers received platinum awards - the highest award given based on the judges exacting scores. But even better than that, the Junior Company's dance won first place overall in its division, beating out several other "typical" dance studios to claim the top prize.

Usually, when a winner's name is called at a dance competition, there is polite applause from the other competitors on stage. These are, after all, competitions, and dancers are highly competitive folks! But when Project UP's Junior Company was named the overall winner, the other dancers on stage applauded with an enthusiasm they would normally reserve for their own dance studios. They extended high-fives and fist-pumps to our kids and some of them even stood up, to join the audience in the standing ovation that the audience was giving. Alan and I were so emotional, we couldn't even look at each other or we would have gone into what Oprah calls "The Ugly Cry!"

After the competition, we went as a group to a restaurant in Bessemer, the oldest restaurant in Jefferson County with an extensive menu, white tablecloths and in general, is a lovely dining experience. They have private banquet rooms and we had reserved one for our group of about 60 kids, parents and volunteers. I saw a look of trepidation on the head waitress' face when she saw us - all these people, with 20+ kids with special needs can appear to be a tall order to fill! The kids all wanted to sit at their own table, without their parents, and even I was a bit nervous at how that would go. Many of our kids are either non-verbal or have speech impediments that make it difficult to understand what they are saying. The kids refused to let their parents help them order and only reluctantly agreed to allow me to help when the waitress came to their table. Each child politely said what they wanted to eat, thanked the waitress for taking their orders and patiently waited their turn. When all the orders were placed, I left them alone at their table, watching to see if any antics or problems might develop.

Now, I've taken a lot of teenagers out to a lot of restaurants in my day - I have two kids of my own and was always the mom who would end up taking everyone's kids out to eat after events. I have never seen a more well-behaved group of young people in my life. Sure, there was some loud laughter, some bathroom humor, some friendly teasing of each other. But not one kid got up from their seat, not one kid failed to put their napkins in their laps or use their utensils (most of my kid's friends would tear into their food like neanderthals when eating out, would cause problems for the wait staff, make impossible and rude demands and, in general, act like teenagers when I took them out to eat).

When we left, Alan approached the head waitress and thanked her for her patience with our large group. She looked at him, with tears streaming down her cheeks, and said, "No, we thank you. We have been blessed more than you will ever know by meeting these kids and waiting on them today."

Our kids beat the odds every day. They overcome challenges, step over hurdles, charge through barriers everywhere they go. What it takes for them to navigate the world, what resources they have to draw from just to do things the rest of us take for granted, is inspiring and amazing to me. And every time someone else meets them, sees them perform, or has an interaction with them, hearts and minds are changed and stereotypes are erased. To play a role in facilitating that is the greatest blessing I have ever received.

So, here's to champions everywhere! True champions are people who work hard to accomplish a goal, dedicate themselves to perfecting their skills, accept victory with humility and defeat without bitterness. And I've never met any greater champions than the kids in Project UP!

First Place Overall Winners at Alabama State Dance Championships, March 2012

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Opposite of Bullying

Darby is 13-years old and has lived through more challenges in her short life than most of us will ever encounter. Born with Down syndrome, Darby had open-heart surgery as an infant and has survived not one, not two, but three bouts with leukemia. When I first met Darby in October 2008, she was fragile, pale and bald, suffering through the worst of a year-long round of chemo in her two-year treatment protocol. Sometimes, she had to come to dance class wearing a surgical mask, as her immune system was so compromised that she was susceptible to any bug or virus in the air. Many times, she would have to sit down during class, as she tired easily. Her mom, Valerie, said that most times that year, she would barely be buckled into the car after class before she was asleep, exhausted from the exertion of being in a dance class. But no matter how bad she felt, how many times she had thrown up that day, how awful her pain was, Darby insisted each week that Valerie bring her to Merrimack Hall for her Dance Your Dreams! class. Valerie said that being at Merrimack Hall was the only bright spot for Darby during that very dark year.

Darby in 2010

Darby is what the experts would call high functioning, but what I would call incredible. She performs at grade level academically, is involved in every extracurricular activity her school will allow her to join and is even a drummer in the marching band. She has taken piano lessons, choral lessons, theatre classes, is a member of her school's thespian club and loves to go to Camp Smile-A-Mile, for children with cancer, each summer. But her favorite activity out of them all is coming to Merrimack Hall because she loves to sing and dance. She advanced up to Project UP last year and loves all the additional performance opportunities she has as a member of our upper level program.

Darby relaxing at camp

Despite her accomplishments, Darby could be a prime target for bullying. She is naive and trusting, a bit behind the curve socially (she hasn't noticed boys yet, much to her father's relief and still likes to play with dolls and with children younger than she is), and she has Down syndrome. While there are many places where she is accepted for who she is, like her church and Merrimack Hall, being in a large public school has put her in the same arena with kids who might not be so kind. We all know the hateful words she may be exposed to someday, those hurtful labels that she might be given, those names she might be called. We all know there may come a time when Darby realizes that she is "different" from her typical peers, when she isn't included in someone's birthday party or when she isn't invited to the prom. If and when that day comes, I know Darby will be able to handle it with the same sort of dignity and courage that she has handled having cancer. I know this because for now, instead of bullying her, her peers have singled her out for recognition and have celebrated her "differentness" in a remarkable way.

You see, Darby has been elected to represent her class in the Homecoming Court tomorrow night! That time-honored tradition of selecting the most popular girls in the school as representatives at the biggest football game of the season has been adjusted slightly by the kids in Darby's grade. Tomorrow night, Darby's dad will be proudly strutting down the football field, with his daughter on his arm, a mum pinned on her collar. Tomorrow night, Darby's grade will be represented not by the smartest girl in the class, or the prettiest girl in the class. Tomorrow night, Darby's grade will be represented by the bravest, kindest and most deserving girl in her grade. And to think that average 13-year-olds had the wisdom and compassion to select Darby to represent them gives me hope that there are enough young kids out there who are willing to stand up for others, who are willing to advocate for those who might not be able to advocate for themselves. There are kids out there who see Darby for who she is, not for what she's diagnosed with. And now I don't know who's more courageous - Darby or her classmates.

Darby dancing with me at The Connection
When the day comes for Darby when someone bullies her, puts her down, leaves her out, mocks or ridicules her, I know that she will be able to remember what she feels tomorrow night, that she will remember that when she was 13, the kids in her grade found her to be the most deserving and the coolest girl in their class. She will be able to draw strength and courage from this honor for years to come and will always know that for once in her life, she was recognized for being "special" for something other than having Down syndrome. She will always be classified as having special needs, but tomorrow night, she will just be special. I know Darby, and I know the message that she is special will resonate with her for years to come and will make a huge difference in her self-esteem and in how she thinks of herself as she advances into high school.

Darby in the school band

We've been hearing so much about bullying during National Anti-Bullying Month, so many ugly stories of people of all ages who are humiliated and hurt because of their appearance, sexual orientation, religious convictions, political affiliations, economic status and more. Today, I wanted to share this story of a group of "typical" kids lifting up a "special" kid, honoring her and paying tribute to her because they like her and admire her. I'd love to hear more stories like this one from you - please post your comment on this blog so that we can push back against bullies by sharing examples of anti-bullies!

I will close with a video shot this summer, where Darby is explaining her Beads of Courage with Carolyn (age 18, autism) and Leah, a staff member. You will be able to see for yourself what an unbelievable girl Darby is. And Carolyn, our new staff member at Merrimack Hall, has her own accomplishments to brag about - she will be representing the United States as an ice skater at the Special Olympics in Seoul, Korea, in February 2013!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

CHATS WITH THE CHAIRMAN - Bullies Aren't Welcome Anywhere

My friend, Abbey is 12-years-old, in 7th grade and has cerebral palsy. I wrote about Abbey a few posts back when I was writing about labels and why we have to attach them to children with special needs. As Abbey so astutely pointed out to me, everyone has special needs of one sort or another - some people's are just more obvious at first glance than other people's are. But recently, Abbey shared with me what it's like to be bullied because of her disability and I found her words to be incredibly powerful - and they made me incredibly angry. This video clip will show you, in her own words, some of the things Abbey has to endure. Click on the image left to watch!

I'm sure watching this video will make your blood boil and your heart break, imagining what Abbey has to put up with, imagining her coming home from school to cry. I hope it will also make you admire Abbey for her courage and self-confidence because she is able to let most of these bullies roll off her back. Her mother has taught her that she is so much more than her diagnosis and luckily, she has many other kids and adults who recognize her bravery and integrity. Abbey is able to advocate for herself in many ways, as she is articulate and one of the most compassionate people I've ever met - of any age!

But what happens to those kids who aren't able to stand up for themselves, like Abbey is? What about those kids who can't communicate well enough to defend themselves? Or besides children with special needs, what about those kids who are routinely bullied because of how they dress, how they look, how well they do or don't do in school, their sexual orientation, their religious beliefs? How did it become so commonplace for our children to have to endure mistreatment and what can we do to stop it?

I wonder if we have become such a litigious society that too many people are afraid to stand up for victims of bullying because they are afraid of legal implications if they do. Or if we have become so immune to the effects of bullying because there are so many ways a child - or an adult - can be bullied. There's cyber bullying, workplace bullying, schoolyard bullying. Are we becoming so cowardly that we are allowing the bullies to win? Are kids being told they can't stand up for themselves against bullies because our schools have a zero tolerance policy for violence so that a student can't even physically defend themselves?

To me, bullies are ignorant, plain and simple. They are ignorant about a lot of things, like people's differences, they obviously aren't tolerant and clearly don't have any confidence in themselves. But I think the biggest thing they are ignorant of is their own feelings and emotions. If a school yard bully or an office bully had the emotional maturity to be cognizant of how their words and actions feel, they wouldn't do such cruel and hurtful things. How to go about educating these ignorant bullies is where the problem lies.

Children who bully other children are perhaps mistreated at home. Maybe they don't have loving adults in their lives who teach them right from wrong. Maybe they aren't being raised with any sort of spiritual grounding, any sort of religion that teaches them about loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. To a certain extent, children can't be held completely accountable for their actions. Which is where we, as a society, have to step in and set standards of acceptable behavior to one another for children to emulate.

Abbey and I spent an afternoon together about a year ago. I picked her up at her house and took her to a children's nail salon, where she got a manicure, pedicure and a haircut, then we went to the mall where she wanted to "Build A Bear" and ended our day with lunch at a fun-themed restaurant. I enjoyed every minute with Abbey, loved her hilarious running commentary on everything we were doing - that kid has quite a sense of humor! But by the third stop on our trip, my back was hurting and my arms were starting to ache. Because each stop along the way involved getting the wheelchair out of the back of the car, lifting Abbey from her seat (and she weighed about 60 pounds at the time), getting her situated in the chair and then repeating these actions when we got back into the car. I suddenly understood why so many of the parents of the kids in my programs wore back support bands, why so many of them had back problems.

When we were at the mall, it suddenly dawned on me that whoever thinks that stores in malls are wheelchair accessible is crazy because we bumped into every end wrack and display we came across. The aisles were not wide enough to accommodate even a child's wheelchair. Several people, including children, spoke to us in the bear store, admiring the kitten Abbey created and greeting us warmly as we passed. But when we made our final stop at the restaurant and were waiting in line to be seated, a big, ugly, wretched looking woman began to stare at us- in disgust. A grown woman, who, I might add, was ill-groomed, smelled bad and looked even worse (okay, I might be exaggerating but wait until you hear the rest of the story!), stared down at Abbey in her wheelchair, not saying a word. Abbey smiled up at her, held out her kitten and said, "Would you like to see the kitten I just made?" The woman looked Abbey straight in the eyes....and turned her back on us.

The hostess at the restaurant and the other patrons waiting in line saw this and all of them began to chime in to Abbey, exclaiming over how cute her kitten was and what a good job she did in creating it. The hostess even skipped over the hideous woman to seat others behind her first. But none of that prevented Abbey from being completely aware of what had just happened - she had been judged and rejected by an adult, a grown woman who certainly should have known better. What'cha want to bet that that wicked witch raised a bully or two?

As a parent, I certainly don't want to be held responsible for every mistake my children might make. But I do feel I should be responsible for giving them the moral grounding to help them develop their own moral compass and the ability to feel compassion for others. As a society, we should all feel a responsibility to make up for cruelty and bullying when we see it happening, like the others did in the restaurant line. It can't take away the hurt from someone being bullied, but at least we can show them that everyone in the world doesn't stink.

And it wouldn't hurt if every parent had to spend an afternoon lugging a wheelchair or walker everywhere they go, seeing what it's like to have a child with special needs who is completely dependent on others for their mobility. Walk a mile in someone else's shoes and we're more likely to understand what their life is like on a daily basis. Why don't we all band together, like the people in the restaurant line, and acknowledge when we see someone being bullied - ignore the bully and extend compassion to the bullied? Why can't we all show those who bully that they aren't welcome here, in our schools, in our businesses, in our homes? Bullies do what they do because they are ignorant and because they can get away with it. The next time you see someone doing something cruel to another person, if you don't want to step in and get actively involved, at least turn your back to the bully and let them know that bullies aren't welcome around here.

Debra Jenkins, Chairman