Thursday, August 1, 2013

You Get What You Give...and Then Some!

When Coach Gene Stallings came to Merrimack Hall in 2009, he asked me, "Who are all these teenagers running around here?" When I explained they were our volunteers, he was amazed. He told me he had never seen a program that had our volunteer element and that he was sure our program was changing our volunteers as much as it was changing our students. Of course, I agree with him but sometimes, I take it for granted that we have so many remarkable kids who volunteer with us. I don't take THEM for granted, but I take it for granted that there are lots of people in the world who want to help others.
Decorian and Olivia in holiday show
When I really think about it, it's remarkable that we've been able to recruit, train and retain hundreds of teenagers over the past five years - kids who have given hours and hours of service to our students.

The five typical dancers in "Change the World" are all amazing dancers and they represented themselves, and their teacher Hayley Henderson, extremely well in LA. But they were also representing all of the teens who have given their time, talents and their heart to our kids. I wish every volunteer could have gone with us because each one of them deserves the sort of opportunity that our trip to LA offered young dancers. Even though they didn't get to make the trip, I'm confident something wonderful will come to each of them because when you do something good for someone else for purely unselfish reasons, it always comes back to you.

Peyton, Haleigh, Shelby, Sarah Katherine and Erika started volunteering with us three years ago. When they signed up, none of them expected to get anything personal from their involvement. Some of them came to their first class with a bit of trepidation...they had no experience being around kids with special needs and weren't quite sure what to expect. It never takes more than one or two classes for our volunteers to get "hooked." These are teenagers who love the arts and love the feeling they get from sharing the arts with kids who are routinely denied access to mainstream arts activities. And while volunteering with us is, for the most part, a fun experience, each of our volunteers has encountered things over the past five years that may have been more than they bargained for...toileting issues, temper tantrums, kids who love to try to "escape" down the elevator just for giggles which causes their volunteer to spend class time running up and down our steps trying to catch up! No matter what the small challenges may be presented in a weekly class, the volunteers keep coming back...week after week.
Shelby and Anna G
And what kills my  heart the most is when we have a performance. The volunteers are all performers themselves, trained to stand in the spotlight. Yet, when our kids take the stage, they wear all black, get down on their knees and offer the sort of behind the scenes support our kids need to fully participate. The volunteers put themselves in the background and do whatever they need to so that our students can shine as the stars they are.

Shelby is one extraordinary example. Only 13, we agreed to let her start volunteering at the ripe old age of 12 because she really wanted to, Hayley wanted her to and she was struggling to cope with her father's battle with leukemia. Her father passed away during our summer camp last year but Shelby continued to attend camp each morning - she didn't want to let her student down and I'm sure the joy our children find in the arts helped to soothe her aching heart. The universe works in strange ways sometimes - our performance in LA was on July 27, which happened to be the one year anniversary of Shelby's father's passing. I hope that dancing in LA in that incredible show allowed Shelby to replace some horrendous memories with some good ones.

So even though they expected nothing, the five dancers in "Change the World" got an opportunity that dancers dream of having. They can write on their dance resume that they performed in Nigel Lythgoe's Celebration of Dance at the Music Center, that they were directed by Jeff Thacker and Adam Shankman. Given that Nigel said our piece made him "cry like a baby," I'm sure that when any of them choose to audition for "So You Think You Can Dance,"

Change the World with Twitch and Allison
all they will have to do is tell Nigel they danced in "Change the World" and they'll be through to Vegas immediately.

Merrimack Hall is proud of our record of giving teens the chance to learn the value of volunteer service and we are proud of all the teens who have joined us on our journey to open doors to the arts for kids with special needs. We couldn't have done it without them, that's for sure. And somewhere in their futures will be a reward for each of them for their sacrifices on behalf of kids with special needs. My reward will be seeing our students continue to flourish and grow and to watch from the sidelines as our volunteers achieve all of their dreams!

No comments: