About My Program

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HLN featured our programs in 2013. Click here to watch the segment.

Armed with a desire to leave a lasting legacy in our community – and little else – my husband, Alan, and I decided to pair our financial resources together with our passion for the performing arts to develop a new venue in our community. We received non-profit status in October 2006 and donated the funds necessary to purchase and renovate an historic building that was once part of a textile mill. After a 13-month renovation and without a real mission or purpose, Merrimack Hall Performing Arts Center opened to the public in July 2007. We immediately began presenting a series of professional touring productions that brought thousands of patrons to the venue but we quickly realized that without some sort of compelling mission, the organization would become nothing other than a presenting house. While there were ancillary benefits to the building’s renovation, such as the revitalization of a previously declining neighborhood, we found ourselves holding the bag on something we never set out to do. Until…

About 90 days after we opened to the public, I was inspired to create a dance program for children with special needs. In October 2008, I launched Dance Your Dreams!, a weekly dance class for children ages 3-12 who live with a variety of diagnoses including Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy and a host of other conditions that prevent them from participating in mainstream arts education. In order to facilitate each child’s participation, we recruited teenagers who are involved in the arts themselves to serve as “coaches” for each child so that all of our students receive whatever level of assistance they need for full participation. The first class was made up of 10 children and 10 volunteers. Today, Dance Your Dreams! has grown into The Johnny Stallings Arts Program (JSAP), which includes 5 separate programs for people with special needs. More than 400 individuals with special needs, ages 3-65, and roughly 200 volunteers come to Merrimack Hall each week for one of 12 weekly classes (dance, music, theatre, visual art, creative writing), a day habilitation program for adults, a series of monthly social events for adults and summer camps.

Many of our students have taken their first unassisted steps in our dance studio; some have spoken their first words in our building; others have achieved milestones that doctors and therapists told their parents they might never meet. The volunteers who work as “coaches” to our students are equally impacted; so far, ten have left high school to pursue a degree in special education or related field in college because of their involvement with JSAP. At Merrimack Hall, we believe that everyone has the right to participate in the arts, regardless of any challenges they may have.

JSAP is named after the son of legendary college and professional football coach Gene Stallings, who helped raise funds for our program.

To learn more about JSAP, visit our program website.

4 thoughts on “About My Program

  1. Pingback: Advice for My Love Life | Dreaming With Your Feet

  2. I think it is awesome what you and Alan have done and are doing for the community. As you know, there is so much need in our own “backyard”. I’m still trying figure out where I’m suppose to land, after losing a 17 year career, however, God is good and has provided me with many new careers opportunities that will be used in my ministry. I have to commend you guys for your excellent work in providing the art/dance programs, especially for the special population who are so unfairly excluded because of peoples ignorances. This is something I would love to aspire to with a entirely different population that needs assistance. Keep up the good work.

  3. LOVE and APPRECIATE all your efforts for children and adults with disabilities. Just read your blog about segregation in schools. Not having much time to read through your entire program, I hope your classes are not segregated and those without disabilities, beyond coaches, are equally welcome to join in the classes with those with disabilities. Again, THANK YOU for all you are doing!

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