My Heart is Heavy

Me with our first group of students, including Darby, in 2008.

Me with our first group of students, including Darby, in 2008.

As we come to the end of the 6th program year of the Johnny Stallings Arts Program, I have been reflecting on all that we’ve accomplished in the past 12 months. We have experienced some incredible highs:

  • Project UP was selected to perform at the National Dance Day Gala in Los Angeles.
  • They were victorious at regional dance competitions in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.
  • We have doubled the number of people we are serving.
  • We completed the renovation of part of our building to house our new day habilitation program for adults.
  • We have re-vamped and improved our monthly social events for adults with special needs.

Personally, there have also been some tremendous high points this year:

  • I launched this new blog and website and have attracted over 25,000 readers in less than 90 days.
  • I completed 22 hours towards an Executive MBA in Social Enterprise from Columbia University and received a Certificate in Business Excellence.
  • I graduated from Leadership Huntsville Class 26.
  • I was honored by the Women’s Economic Development Council for my contributions to the community.
  • My son celebrated one year of sobriety.
  • My daughter moved back home after two years in South Carolina.
  • And Alan and I celebrated 28 years of marriage.

And yet, I feel so low today because no matter how high the achievements have been, the losses this year have been staggering. We lost our beloved Darby Jones on October 28, after her courageous battle with leukemia. One of our students underwent a kidney transplant at the Mayo Clinic and is still recovering from the surgery. Another student is slowly recovering from a series of strokes and grueling rounds of chemo in her battle with leukemia. We lost an adult in the day program to colon cancer, a beautiful man who we immediately fell in love with and lost way too soon. A three-year-old girl has spent the last few months in outpatient treatment for various health problems and another young child is in a body cast, recovering from hip surgery. Just this morning, we learned that a member of Project UP, who should be receiving his trophy and being recognized as a high school senior at our recital on Saturday, will instead be recovering from surgery that is scheduled for Friday to determine if he has cancer or not.

And last Thursday morning, we lost a precious 9-year-old girl, an unexpected and heartbreaking blow to our program. When I started this program, it didn’t occur to me that the volunteers I recruited might have to face loss and pain nor did I realize that along with watching our students achieve great personal milestones, I might also have to watch them die.

Project UP with Melissa, Claire and Hayley in Los Angeles this summer.

Project UP with Melissa, Claire and Hayley in Los Angeles this summer.

Melissa, our Program and Operations Director, is expecting her first child any day now … Merrimack Hall’s first staff baby. While we were at the visitation on Sunday evening, Melissa reminded me that she began her pregnancy at Darby’s funeral and is ending it with the loss of another student … and that was before we learned the news of our other student possibly having cancer.

What a contrast … a new life beginning while others have ended.

I’m reminded of something I heard in my Sunday School class a few years ago. Dr. Donn Wheeler, an esteemed obstetrician, was leading our class in a discussion about the virgin birth. Dr. Wheeler said something like this: I’ve delivered thousands of babies over the course of my career. I can tell you the mechanics of how an egg and a sperm come together to form life and I can explain every step from conception to delivery. I know the science and the medicine like the back of my hand.

And yet, at each birth I attend, I’m reminded of the miracle of life and even though I can tell you the ins and outs of how that life came to be, it’s no less a miracle every time.

As I’ve become involved with people who have special needs, I’ve thought of Dr. Wheeler’s words many times … about the intricate marvel that is human life and about how easily things can go off course.

I’ve thought about how lucky I am that my pregnancies were uneventful, that my children were not injured during birth, that all of their chromosomes lined up in their proper order, that every molecule in every cell came together in just the right way … at just the right moment … to produce a healthy baby.

I’ve thought of how tenuous life is, how easily things can go awry, how fine the line is between complete health and something going terribly wrong.

On Thursday, Melissa and I had to tell the volunteers and parents that one of their classmates had passed away and the reaction from the teenagers who volunteer in the class was painful to see. I feel responsible for their pain because I’m the one who started this program, encouraged teenagers to get involved with us and put them in the position of laying their tender hearts on the line. I know in my head that being involved with JSAP is enriching the teens’ lives and that they are better people because they’ve allowed our students into their hearts but my heart is heavy when I see them grieving, questioning “why” and hurting so deeply.

On days like this, I fight the urge to say, “I can’t do this anymore.”

I said to Alan this morning:

“I wish I could do this without getting so personally involved”

He answered:

“You can’t because that’s why the program works … because everyone is a family now.”

I know he’s right and I remain committed to the work we are doing but sometimes, it just sucks, plain and simple.

Our students at the 2010 Dream Big! spring recital.

Our students at the 2010 Dream Big! spring recital.

Winston Churchill said, “In each person’s life, there comes a moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment should find them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.”

I got that tap on the shoulder in November 2008, when I was first inspired to start a dance class for children with special needs. That tap on the shoulder led me to do something I never could have imagined, it’s introduced me to people I never would have met and it started a chain reaction that created an entire community of lives that never would have intersected if it hadn’t been for that one little dance class.

Until this year, I thought my tap on the shoulder was only going to be a source of happiness but the truth is that happiness and sorrow have to come as a pair…without one, you would never appreciate the other.

I wouldn’t trade knowing Darby or Anthony or Genavieve for anything in the world and I would bring them back if I could, but I can’t. If I could, I would give my own health to prevent other students from suffering, but I can’t. If I could, I would guarantee every teenager who decides to volunteer with us that nothing bad will ever happen to any child they meet and love through our program, but I can’t.

All I can do is remind myself every day that I got tapped on the shoulder for a reason and that tap on the shoulder created a family, so at least all of our hearts share the same pain. Winston Churchill never said that answering that tap on the shoulder would be easy or that it wouldn’t involve getting hurt but he did say that if we answer our tap, it will be worth it.

Warning: Thoughts on Labels

Atlanta Cami and money

Cami handing me the $2 she caught & donated to Merrimack Hall

Labels. They are everywhere we look…on our food, on our medicines, on our clothing. Labels are descriptive, informative, sometimes even life-saving but they are also limiting and narrow. They can help us navigate the world and they can help us make informed choices but labels also prevent us from forming our own opinions and being open to new things. When labels are assigned to people, they can predispose us to judgment and can prevent us from seeing someone for who they really are.

The students in my visual and performing arts programs have to live with labels that are assigned to them by our society…relatively innocuous ones like different, disabled or developmentally delayed and offensive ones like retarded, odd or weird. These labels are based on the diagnosis they’ve been given. Roughly 20% of the US population has special needs and for them, a diagnosis is a useful thing to have – a diagnosis gives them access to services that improve their lives, can prepare organizations like mine to meet their needs and can help educators assess them for appropriate placements. But the labels that accompany the diagnoses are never useful.

Our society claims to celebrate diversity, to embrace the differences between us and yet we rely on labels to categorize, stereotype and pigeon-hole each other. I want to know why. Is it just convenient? Does it make it simpler for us to avoid people or things that might make us uncomfortable? Do we label folks so we can decide who to let in and who to exclude from our lives?

I’ve had to learn a lot of acronyms over the past six years like PDDNOS – pervasive developmental delay not otherwise specified. This is a mouthful that basically means that a person is not developing at the rate of his or her typical peers and their symptoms don’t match up to any existing diagnosis. Some of my students don’t even have this diagnosis – some just don’t learn or develop the way most of us do and there’s no way to explain why. Not having a diagnosis presents its own challenges to my students and their families. Even one as vague as PDDNOS is better than no diagnosis at all.

Cami performing at our 2013 holiday showcase.

Cami performing at our 2013 holiday showcase.

Take Cami, for example. Cami is 14-years-old and has been with JSAP for five years. She attends an alternative school where she is in a classroom equivalent to a 5th or 6th grade class in a typical school. There is no medical explanation for the delays in Cami’s development so, like a lot of people, she falls into a category that’s basically like, “We don’t know what’s wrong, we just know that something is.” In the absence of a diagnosis, the labels kick in on overdrive.

I could use a lot of labels to describe Cami that tell you a lot about who she is – teenager; female; brunette; visual artist; stage performer. I can’t even let myself think of the negative labels that some people might use to describe or categorize Cami. I thought I knew Cami pretty well but last weekend I discovered something about her that I didn’t know – something that has given me a new, better label for Cami. Cami is a philanthropist.

Cami and her teammates in Project UP were in Atlanta at the NRG Dance Project Competition. During the awards ceremony at the end of the evening, NRG founders Nick Gonzalez and Rustin Matthew announced that they were about to do something unprecedented and exciting. The 200+ dancers who were sitting on the stage leaned forward in anticipation, holding their breath to hear what this great thing would be. Nick and Rustin told the kids to look to the ceiling and count down from five. After everyone counted down “5, 4, 3, 2, 1,” 2,000 $1 bills floated down from the ceiling! As it rained money on them, the dancers reached for as many bills as they could grab. No one was too aggressive about it but it was clear that all 200 kids on that stage sure did want to catch some of that free money.

When the competition was over and the last award had been handed out, Cami found her way to me, holding out two $1 bills and smiling sweetly.

“Wow,” I said. “Congratulations, Cami! I’m so excited for you that you caught two dollars!”

“I caught it for you,” Cami answered.

“For me?”

“Yes ma’am. I wanted to catch some money for you to put in the donation box at Merrimack Hall.”

Knowing Cami the way I do, I know it took a lot of guts for her to join in the fray and attempt to catch those dollars. I’m sure she was overwhelmed by the noise, the crowd, the other kids who were grabbing for the same prize she was. Other kids were probably trying to catch the money because it was fun, or because they are competitive, or because they wanted to buy a frappe at Starbucks. Not Cami…she wanted to catch some money so she could give it to me to use at Merrimack Hall.

According to Webster’s, a philanthropist is “a person who seeks to promote the welfare of others, especially by the generous donation of money to good causes.” That label fits Cami – and many of her teammates who have asked for donations to our program in lieu of birthday gifts – much better than of the other labels she has been given. Until we get to the point where we actually do celebrate our differences, wouldn’t it be nice if the labels we gave to each other described who we are on the inside instead of what color our skin is or where we worship or what our sexual preference is or what we can or can’t do?

The people with special needs that I know live with labels that predispose others to judge their abilities before they ever have a chance to show someone who they are. In an effort to provide services, mainstream and include, our society tells us right off the bat that a person with a disability is different from the norm – physically disabled or developmentally disabled are the first labels my students are given and those labels follow them for the rest of their lives, everywhere they go and in everything they do. It didn’t take me long to realize that none of these labels is accurate and if you spend a little time around people with special needs you’ll realize it too. Once you start thinking about the negative nature of labels for one group of people, you’ll find yourself noticing the negative nature of labels for any group of people.

Labels on people should come with their own warning label, something like, “WARNING – this label is not adequate to describe the person it is being assigned to and is possibly being used to facilitate exclusion, bias and discrimination.” If a label carries with it a negative connotation, we should mark that label “expired.”

Everything I Need to Know to Have a Happy Life

IMG_3275

Do you want to know the secrets to having a happy life? All you have to do is spend four days on a trip with five kids with special needs … they have all the answers.

It’s really simple to “live your best life,” as Oprah says, if you only follow the example my students showed me this weekend. Here are the 10 things I learned that, if implemented in our lives, will make us all happier:

1.  Never hurry – We tried to hurry Katie to our first rehearsal and the result was a complete and total come-apart. As all of us tried to calm her down, she said, “You shouldn’t have rushed me.” She’s right. There had been no reason for us to hurry her. We should plan our activities well enough that we don’t have to hurry and sometimes, we just might have to be late … the world won’t fall apart.

2.  Ask for help – Us “normal” folks are too prideful to ask for help. We think we have all the answers, we don’t want others to know we may not have it all together, we view asking for help as a weakness. My students know when to ask for help and they don’t mind accepting it. Whether it’s opening a ketchup packet, tying their shoes or getting their hair combed, if they need help, they ask for it.

3.  No is a complete sentence – There are many times when our students tell us “no” and sometimes we try to persuade them to say “yes.” Most of the time, when a child with special needs tells me “no,” they mean no…not maybe, not later…they mean no! They don’t overcommit themselves, promise things they can’t deliver, agree to do things they don’t really want to do. They just way “no” without justification, without explanation and without hesitation. Say “no” more often to those things you don’t really have your heart in and you’ll be amazed at how much lighter you feel.

4.  Know when you need a moment to yourself – After lunch on Saturday, Anna C told me that she needed a nap. As Katie was collecting herself after her meltdown, she said, “I just need a minute alone.” We go to hard, we push ourselves, we do too much, we don’t take naps. Sometimes, we need to recognize when we need a moment for ourselves.

Zack

Zack

5. Express your feelings and be excited about the small stuff – We play guessing games with each other. We don’t say what we really feel or feel what we say. When Anna G was gripped with stage fright right before “Change the World” was to go on, she didn’t hold it in. She wasn’t ashamed to say, “I scared.” She told everyone she was scared and told them why – there were way too many people in that audience for Anna G. Carolyn talked about how much she missed Zach several times. Due to his father’s emergency heart surgery, Zach wasn’t able to make the trip. Carolyn didn’t hold in her feelings or worry that it would be inappropriate to say how she felt – she missed Zach and she said so. Anna G didn’t think it was a sign of weakness to admit she was scared. If we all expressed our feelings – good or bad – more often, there would surely be fewer people on anti-depressants!

Another thing our students do is greet you with exuberant enthusiasm – even if its only been 15 minutes since they last saw you. Anna G told me she missed me when we’d only been away from each other for about 5 minutes and each time we met up with each other, all of our students acted like it was the reunion of the century – now that makes a person feel wonderful! And they were excited about everything…the burritos we had for lunch, the movie stars we met, the little tram that ran outside our hotel…it didn’t matter what it was, they were excited about it and expressed that excitement. It’s contagious – just like being around someone who complains all the time can make you feel negative, being around someone who is excited about life can make you feel excited too, even when you aren’t (I wasn’t too excited about the burritos at lunch but when everyone else was acting like we were in a five star restaurant, it made me enjoy them more).

6.  Hold hands with someone often – Hugs are great but they are more impermanent than holding hands. Our students reach for our hands all the time – for support, for help, for comfort and just for fun. I held hands at one time or another with all five of the kids who went to LA and sadly, I never held hands with any of the five typical kids who were in our dance piece. I plan to hold hands with them the next time I see them! Holding hands makes you feel connected to another person and it puts a spring in your step to know someone you care about is connected to you. I wish I had held hands with the Element dancers, with Hayley, with my kids, with Alan more while I was on the trip. From now on, I’m going to remember how very lovely it is to hold hands.

IMG_6145-2

7.  Support others when they are down – It’s easy to look the other way when someone is hurting. It’s simpler to not get involved when someone is having a problem. My students don’t take the easy way out. If someone is upset, or angry, or sad my students ask, “What’s wrong?” And they listen to your answer. They offer simple condolences, like, “It will be okay,” or “I love you” and more often than not, that’s all a person needs to hear when they are feeling bad. Nothing can make us feel better than helping someone else – no matter what bad things are going in your own life, supporting someone else usually puts your own problems into perspective.

8.  Accept compliments and believe them – We told all 10 dancers that they were stars, they rocked it out, they brought down the house, they are magnificent dancers. Do you know who believed us? The five kids with special needs. Four of the five typical dancers deflected compliments, said, “Thank you, but I messed up,” or “Thank you but I’m not as great as those other dancers” or some similar remark. Why are we programmed to ignore compliments? Because we don’t want to get big-headed and egotistic? My students don’t have one ounce of ego in them but they believe people who give them compliments. They believe they are beautiful, they believe they are stars, they believe they have done their best every time they dance. They don’t bog themselves down with self-doubt or envy or jealousy – they love themselves, just the way we all should love ourselves. Peyton was the only typical dancer who didn’t deflect my compliment – when I said to him, “You know that was your personal best…you’ve never danced that fantastic in your life,” he answered with a grin, “I felt it.” Good for Peyton that he recognized he was great Saturday night…he’s great all the time in my book!

9.  Believe in yourself – Would you have enough courage and belief in yourself to try to dance if you couldn’t walk? I know I wouldn’t. But I have students who do – kids who cannot walk but who believe in themselves enough to enroll in a dance class. I asked Elianna once, “What makes you love dancing so much?” She answered, “I love it because I never got to try it before…I just wanted the chance to try.” That takes a tremendous amount of belief in yourself. When I think of Anna G, Anna C, Katie, Connor and Carolyn taking the stage in front of 3,100 people, I’m blown away by their belief in themselves. At the first rehearsal, they took my hand, followed me into the theatre and believed in themselves enough to get on that huge stage and perform for Nigel Lythgoe, Adam Shankman and Jeff Thacker…at the next rehearsal, they performed in front of some of the most talented dancers in the world and at the show, they didn’t exhibit one ounce of self-doubt. If they can believe in themselves – kids who are told every day that they aren’t “normal,” aren’t “good enough,” aren’t “smart enough,” – then why can’t you and I believe in ourselves that way?

10. If you love someone, tell them often – Anna G, Anna C and Katie told me they loved me at least ten times every day. Connor and Carolyn may not have said, “I love you,” but they held my hand, hugged me, sat by me, smiled at me and thanked me constantly. I know those five kids love me because they tell me often. I tell my kids and my husband that I love them every day but even if I said it 50 times a day, it wouldn’t be enough.

The more time I spend with people who have special needs, the more I see that Alan’s right…they are the way God intended us all to be and we are the ones who are “different.”

I’d love to hear from you about what you’ve learned from people with special needs! Please leave a comment on this blog and let’s start a dialogue!

 

Reflections on our L.A. Trip

Now, for more reflections on our trip to LA!

Anna G wasn’t the star of the show…all 10 of our dancers won over hearts and minds. But Anna G was the only one of the Project UP dancers who attended the entire black tie dinner following our performance. Anna C went to the dinner too, but after the meal was served, she was exhausted and decided to go back to the hotel with her mom. Anna G, however, was up for a party. And party she did!

Anna G and Mary Murphy of "So You Think You Can Dance"

Anna G and Mary Murphy of “So You Think You Can Dance”

When all the stars of So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With The Stars took the dance floor for a dance battle, we managed to get on the front row surrounding the dance floor. What a battle it was – ballroom dancers, ballerinas, tap dancers, hip hop dancers – every genre of professional dancer doing their thing, each one more incredible than the one before. When Christopher Scott pulled Anna out of the crowd to dance with him, everyone erupted in screams and claps, cheering Anna on as she pumped, shimmied, twerked and shagged with the biggest choreographer in the industry. Then she danced with Twitch to the same rousing response.

There were so many memorable moments – some captured in photos and some only in our minds. Ashley’s favorite memory was walking into the dinner with Layne, Anna C and Anna G. Ashley and Layne walked behind the girls as they entered the room. As soon as the girls walked in where everyone was already seated for dinner, people from one end of the room to the other noticed them. Ashley said they were greeted with smiles, waves and congratulations from everyone they walked past – in a room full of stars, people like Jane Lynch and Christina Applegate treated our girls like the stars they are.

Anna G and Chita Rivera

Anna G and Chita Rivera

Melissa’s favorite moment was being backstage, watching from the wings as our kids took the stage. She said she was trying to watch our kids but also look out into the audience to gauge their reaction. Jane Lynch was seated on the front row, as she was presenting an award during the show. Melissa had a straight line of site to her and said that as soon as the music started, Jane leaned forward, rested her arms on her thighs and watched with intense concentration. And soon, Melissa saw tears streaming down Jane Lynch’s face. Now that’s a moment!

My favorite moment was probably when we met up with the Project UP parents in the theatre lobby after the performance. They were all beaming with pride and more elated than they’ve probably ever been. These are parents of children who are routinely marginalized, overlooked and left out. Their children are denied the opportunity to participate in many things. Their children have challenges that could limit their life experiences and face barriers that prevent them from doing a lot of the things they would like to do.

Anna G and Christina Applegate

Anna G and Christina Applegate

Saturday night, their kids took the stage like professionals, wowed the crowd, received the longest of the 3 standing ovations of the night and remained on the stage with Nigel and Adam, grinning from ear to ear. How many people could actually take the stage and perform in front of 3,100 people? How many of us would be too scared or intimidated to share the bill with professional dancers of every genre? “Typical” people like me have way too many hang-ups, are way too self-absorbed and think way too much about themselves to rise to the sorts of challenges our students face every day. I am constantly amazed at the parents’ resilience and am reminded of words Coach Gene Stallings said when he visited Merrimack Hall in 2009. He said, “For years after Johnny was born, I prayed to God to change Johnny. And one day I realized that God hadn’t changed Johnny…God had changed me.” I’m sure our parents would agree that having a child with special needs has made each of them a better person.

We Did It!

Nigel backstage

I’d say the world was changed Saturday night – or at least the worlds of the 3,100 people who were in the audience. This picture pretty much sums up our experience:

Yep, that’s our Katie, Melissa and Hayley with Nigel Lythgoe, who called our dancers “angels” and was the man who told me I’m the only woman who’s ever made him cry. Nigel, who is the face of dance in America, Nigel who is the creator of American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance – yep, that guy.

Backstage with Neal

Backstage with Twitch & Allison

And here they are with So You Think You Can Dance All-Star Neal, and below, they are with our good friend Twitch, and his fiance, SYTYCD alum Allison!

Right after the show ended, complete with our kids taking a final bow with the entire cast and dancing to the closing of the curtain, we met up in the lobby – some of us headed to the Black Tie Ball, some of us headed back to the hotel. I’ve never seen so many happy faces in my life!

Of course, we didn’t take nearly enough pictures – and photos and videos are still being uploaded this morning, which will be shared, but I had to post this blog to tell you about the two highlights of the night for me.

We were the finale of Act I. When the kids were backstage and we were in the audience, enjoying a fantastic show in our VIP seats!!, everyone was doing great until…the kids were called backstage to take their places. When they got in the wings, Anna G began to get scared, which turned into outright panic. “I scared,” she told Hayley and Melissa.

Hayley and Melissa – along with the Element dancers – tried to convince her there was nothing to be scared of. “All these people out here are your fans,” someone told her. “How many?,” she asked. “About 3,000,” someone answered. “I scared,” she said again, as she began to back away from the group.

Hayley and Melissa tried to stay calm but they knew if they couldn’t talk Anna out of this fear, she would not take the stage. What could they say or do to make her comfortable, to give her the confidence she needed?

Nothing, it turns out. What she needed was for her best friend, Anna C, to walk up to her. Anna C put her arm around Anna G and said, “G, we got this.” Anna G took a deep breath, help up a peace sign and made her “stank face” and everyone knew she was ready to go! The right words of encouragement from her best friend and teammate and…she put on her game face, took the stage and rocked it out. Now that’s what it means to be a friend, to be a teammate and to put your fears aside and go for your dreams!

After Performance
The standing ovation was started by Jane Lynch (of GLEE) and Christina Applegate, who were seated on the front row. When they stood up, the rest of the 3,100 people weren’t far behind – within seconds the entire theatre was on their feet with a sustained and resounding ovation. Nigel and Adam walked on stage after letting the ovation last a few minutes, which was our kids’ cue to exit the stage. But Nigel told them to stay put – they remained on stage with Adam and Nigel while the men asked for donations to Dizzy Feet’s community fund, which was to be collected during intermission. For a good 5 minutes, our dancers stood on that stage, holding hands and grinning from ear to ear, while Nigel and Adam talked about them and about Dizzy Feet’s Community Program. Then, Nigel took Anna C’s hand and skipped offstage with them, while Adam held hands with the kid on the opposite end.

My second favorite moment of the night was at the Ball. After the dinner and live auction, the stars of SYTYCD and Dancing with the Stars took the dance floor for a dance battle, with the attendees circled around watching the most dazzling display of talent we had ever seen. We were lucky enough to be in the front row of onlookers, with Anna G grooving to the music, clapping and watching with a huge smile on her face. Christopher Scott – one of the hottest choreographers around right now, and quite a cutie to book – spotted Anna G. I saw him make eye contact with her and thought – oh no he isn’t – when he approached her, brought her onto the dance floor and amidst the cheers of the crowd, Anna G did her thing! She twerked, and pumped and danced her heart out. Christopher was amazed and stood back to let Anna G shine in all her glory! Once that was done, Christopher and Twitch engaged in a fantastic battle and wouldn’t you know it…Twitch broke away from Christopher Scott and also pulled Anna out center stage of the dance floor. She was absolutely the belle of the ball!

After the dance battled ended, we took over the dance floor and danced every song until the DJ threw us out! We were the last to leave but Anna wasn’t ready…she wanted to dance some more!!! The walk back to the hotel was a jubilant celebration – the kids from Project UP and Element did it…they changed the world Saturday night.

On a personal note, my daughter, Emma, was also brought into the dance battle by Cyrus, of Season 9, and again by Mark Ballas of Dancing with the Stars. Austin asked, “Why did those guys ask Emma to dance? You think they could just tell she had the moves?” I think it’s because she looked gorgeous and because she’s a helluva dancer – and I guess they could just tell that!

As more photos and videos are uploaded today, I will blog again. But my words will be inadequate to explain how incredible the night way, how the audience embraced our piece, how impressed the most impressive people in the entertainment industry were and how it all seems like the greatest dream ever in my life. I never thought, 6 years ago when we started our little program, that we would impact hundreds of people, create an entire community of families, volunteers and people with special needs and that they would give meaning to Alan and my  life in ways we cannot even describe. Sometimes, when you dream big, your dreams really do come true!

It’s Showtime!

Project UP with Twitch and Allison

Project UP with Twitch and Allison

In one hour, we are meeting in the lobby of the hotel to walk to The Music Center. We just finished having a beauty shop in my room – Alan stood by the window and watched the proceedings, as curling irons, straightening irons, hairspray and make-up was passed around, resulting in 4 girls from Project UP looking like angels!!! That’s what Nigel Lythgoe calls them – this morning at rehearsal, he called out, “Good morning to my angels from Merrimack Hall.” How cool is that?

The rehearsals were incredible…we saw Travis Wall set a piece on 3 dancers who won Dizzy Feet scholarships, saw the cast of the Step Up movies rehearse an incredible hip hop piece that will be the finale of the show, watched the youth world champion ballroom dance couple, saw the San Francisco Ballet and even Wayne Brady with his dance crew. Every time someone else took the stage to rehearse, it was more exciting than the last.
The Project UP and Element dancers conducted themselves like seasoned pros – politely waiting in the audience, taking their places when called, following their cues, improvising with a new bench the prop department got for us. All 10 of them acted like they had performed in a 3100 seat theatre before – Connor said, “It’s just like our theatre, only bigger!”
As we were leaving the venue to get lunch, we saw Twitch approaching – the man who made all this possible! It was Twitch who reported to the Dizzy Feet Board of Directors that our program was, “the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen” and it was Twitch who agreed to pitch the idea of our performing to the Board for me. Without his endorsement, this dream wouldn’t be happening.
As we were walking to lunch, Carolyn said, “I miss Zach…but Connor has the same swag that Zach does!” We all miss Zach and hope his father is continuing to improve. We will share the stories of our adventures with him when we get home and, good sport that he is, Zach will relish hearing about our adventures.
I don’t know who’s teared up more the last 24 hours – Alan, our daughter, Emma, or me. I took Emma with us to rehearsal today and every time she and I looked at each other, we started crying. We finally decided not to look at each other at all. Alan didn’t want to see rehearsal – he said he wants to be prepared to feel all the emotions fresh tonight – pride, amazement, joy – at our kids and what they’ve accomplished. We are thilled that Emma was able to get off work and meet us out here and our son, Austin, is with us too. Merrimack Hall has always been a family project – when we founded the organization, we said it was our family’s gift to the community. I am so grateful that all 4 of us are here together to share in this amazing moment.
Yesterday, Jeff Thacker (Executive Producer of So You Think You Can Dance and Director of tonight’s Gala) told Hayley Henderson that her choreography was “brilliant.” I couldn’t agree more. She has managed to use dance to depict some powerful emotions and a compelling message. I am so proud of her I could scream…actually, I did scream – at the top of my lungs while we were waiting for the light to change so we could cross the street! I was just so excited after rehearsal that I couldn’t hold back and Connor told me he thought I had gone nuts! Katie said I was crazy and was embarrassing her, so I’ll try to hold it in – at least until the end of the black tie dinner, but I’m not making any promises.
This trip is evidence that if you dream big, your dreams can come true. Alan and I have the philosophy that if you think about doing something, you should go big or go home and that you should, in the words of Nike, “Just do it.” If someone had told me back in 2007 when we opened the doors to Merrimack Hall that our kids with special needs would be dancing on the same stage with some of the world’s most famous and talented dancers, I would have politely ask you what you had been smoking! But we had a big dream and we just did it – with the help of our community, our donors, our ticket buyers, our incredible volunteers and of course, with the help of the wonderful children who are part of our program. They have changed our lives forever, they have touched our hearts profoundly, and tonight, they will take their message of acceptance to the largest audience ever. Our kids are going to change the world – as Anna C says – one dancer, one twirl at a time!

Arrival in Los Angeles

I have no words – or pictures – to describe what happened this evening. I will use a bullet list, because it’s 2 a.m. out here and Alan warned me not to blog at this late hour.

  • we were told to wait for a rehearsal call at 3 p.m.
  • at 4 p.m. we were told to wait longer.
  • at 4:40 p..m. we were told to be at the venue by 5:30 p.m.
  • at 5:32 Katie had a meltdown.
  • at 5:40, Anna G had a meltdown.
  • at 5:50, everyone was antsy, burning up from the heat of all the bulbs surrounding all the dressing tables in the fancy dressing room where they told us to wait and Hayley and I used all our ones to buy 15 bottles of water.
  • at 6:10 I said, “enough of this…we are going to wait in the theatre where it’s at least cool and something is happening that will divert the kids’ attention from the fact that they are tired, hot and hungry.”
  • at 6:15, our group was seated in the 3,100 seat venue.
  • at 6:20, Nigel Lithgoe and Adam Shankman introduced themselves to me, allowed our kids to introduce themselves to them and Nigel said to me, “You are the only woman who has ever made me cry…I sat in my bed and watched the video of your dance on my phone and cried like a baby.”
  • 6:30 – cast and Hayley took the stage to block and get cues from Jeff, the director of the show, and Nigel.
  • 6:35  Peyton and Erika called a dancer huddle – all 10 kids huddled up, amidst the chaos of lighting hangs, prop cues, sound engineers and stage managers – I don’t know what they said in their huddle, but I’m sure it was profound.
  • 6:40 – first run through of “Change the World” – a perfect performance from the cast.
  • 6:45 – Nigel sat behind me and asked questions for his script – how many kids are in your program? what made you start your program? Who are these typical kids? Do you think this is changing the typical dancers even more than its changing the dancers with special needs?
  • 6:50 – Anya and Dimitri rehearsed the sexiest cha-cha ever – to which Connor responded, “Awkward!”…it was very sexy.
  • 7:00 – union rep ordered the theatre closed and the stage manager told us to return at 11:15 Saturday.
  • The director told us to come to rehearsal as early as we want and to bring our cameras and autograph books.
  • The director told our kids that our dance piece is the definition of the word “Beautiful.”
  • Nigel said, “Can’t wait to see you tomorrow.”
I’d say, successful rehearsal!!