Starring…my favorite kids with special needs

Video shoot, June 2012

Video shoot, June 2012

This video will make your Monday!

Two summers ago, we were approached by some folks in Hollywood who were interested in making a feature film based on JSAP. The idea is still floating around out there, somewhere in that strange land called LA. Who knows…it could still happen someday. Even if it never materializes, those filmmakers left us with something priceless – a beautiful video intended to give a glimpse into the personalities of some of our students and to show how endearing, funny and fabulous they are. So, let’s go back two years, when Darby was still here, when Connor was a little boy, when Melissa had long hair and when it was Katie’s 18th birthday….

 

You Too Important

Katie and Carolyn have worked at Merrimack Hall for two years. When a business hires a person with special needs, they gain so much more than just an employee. Here are some things that business owners might not know about hiring people with special needs:

  • most people with special needs would be happy with a part-time job, not full-time
  • in some cases, people with special needs can be paid less than minimum wage; in all cases, they would much prefer to have some income rather than no income
  • job coaches are available to help train and supervise people with special needs, if your business is not able to do this
  • organizations like The Phoenix Corporation can come into your business and identify ways you could create meaningful jobs for people with special needs
Katie and Emma

Katie and Emma

There are many intangible benefits to having people with special needs on your payroll, such as the diversity and unique perspective they can bring to the workplace. Here are two examples of how Katie has had a positive impact on me at work:

Katie wears an insulin pump and each day after lunch, she pricks her finger, calls her mother to report the number on her pump and adjusts her insulin dosage. Without fail, once she receives her insulin, Katie goes into the lobby to sing a song. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in the lobby…it probably wouldn’t matter if the building was on fire. Nothing interrupts what we’ve affectionately come to call Katie’s “Sugar Song.” For about 20 minutes, she sings at the top of her lungs about anything and everything, but most often, the Sugar Song is about herself. Her songs have no set rhythm or rhyme and typical lyrics might be:

I so beautiful.
I so happy.
I love my cat.
or
I a princess.
I wear pink.
I the best worker.

Katie and Rachel

Katie and Rachel

I decided to try a Sugar Song for myself a few weeks ago. I was tense, worried about a grant deadline and acting a bit testy. So, I grabbed a Snickers bar from the concession stand and after I ate it, I sang – at the top of my lungs. I don’t know if anyone heard me or not but, like Katie, I decided I didn’t care. My lyrics, sung to the tune of “You Are My Sunshine” were:

I am amazing.
I’m so amazing.
I’ll get this grant cause I’m the best.
My mission is the
Most compelling
My grant will blow away the rest.

And it worked! I felt less anxious when I finished my Sugar Song. And low and behold, last week I got an email notifying me that I had indeed received the grant – a $10,000 grant to establish a leadership development program for our volunteers. Sugar Songs are going to become a regular part of my day from now on.

The second example happened a few months ago. Katie was eating lunch by herself in our kitchen and I was on a frantic search for something – don’t remember what. I darted past the kitchen table about 5 times, going into people’s offices, out the back door and in again, up to the lobby and back. Each time I passed the table, Katie offered me a different greeting.

Hi, Boss Lady!
or
You look cute, Debra!

I responded with appropriate comments but never slowed down until finally, Katie stood up from her chair and said:

Hey! Slow down! 

Of course, I obeyed. Then Katie said:

Why you hurry so much? You think you too important.

Well, that put me in my place. Why was I hurrying? Katie never hurries or rushes and neither should I. When I’m on some self-important mission, I’m not doing anything but stressing myself out – and probably stressing out those around me at the same time. Katie was right…I’m just not that important and neither is anything I have to do that requires me to hurry so much that I can’t stop and engage in a polite conversation with my teammate. Thanks to Katie, I’m going to slow down…and sing a song every now and then.

Katie and Me

Katie and Me

If you’re interested in hiring someone with special needs, I’d love to hear from you! I would be happy to connect you with resources to facilitate the hiring of someone with special needs. I can also recommend any of the dozens of adults in my program who would be thrilled to have a part-time job and who would bring enormous benefit to your business.

Not So “Typical” Teens

One of the first things I learned back in 2008 when I first became involved with people who have special needs was that we should refer to people with disabilities as people first – like people with special needs, not special needs people – and that those of us who don’t have disabilities should be referred to as “typical.” After spending seven  years working with our teenage volunteers, I can tell you that there’s nothing typical about any of them.

When I first got the idea to try teaching dance to kids with special needs, I knew that the normal teacher/pupil ratio wouldn’t work. I didn’t want to limit my program to one type of disability; I wanted any child who wanted to participate in the arts to join. But that meant being prepared for children with a wide variety of challenges – verbal, physical, social – and in the beginning, we only had two teachers…Hayley Henderson and me. Even though I limited class size to 10 students, I knew that with an age range of 3-12 and with disabilities like Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy, mitochondrial disease, spina bifida and others, we were gonna need some help.

Hayley turned to the kids in the Huntsville High School Show Choir, led by her mother and Choral Department Director Sherry Smith, for help. She rounded up 9 kids – and I threw in Austin to get us up to an even 10 – and we had our first crop of typical students to serve as program volunteers. I had no idea back then that relationships between students, volunteers and the families of both would form outside the walls of Merrimack Hall. Once they’ve graduated, our volunteers return to visit us on school breaks, take their former students out for lunch and visit them each time they’re home from college. Our program is proof that both sides benefit when we are all integrated together.

I’m amazed…and grateful…when, year after year, teenagers come to us from all over North Alabama. These typical teens are already exceptional – all of them are high-achieving, budding philanthropists with too many talents to list – and the friendships they share with our students are, well, they’re pretty special.

We honored 9 seniors at our Spring Recital – 5 typical kids and 4 kids with special needs. In the first half of this short video, the volunteers say, in their own words, what our students have meant to them; the second half is me, talking about our students. For anyone who wonders how “typical” kids could benefit from having kids with special needs in their classrooms, and in their lives, this video says it all.

Luckily, we will still have our Project UP seniors with us next year but our volunteers will be off to college – every one of them having received prestigious scholarships. Halle Ragan, Emily Dean, Peyton Davis, John Chilton and Bailey Kinnard, we will miss you so much! These typical teens, and the 50 who have already graduated, took our first little dance class and have turned it into something I never could have imagined. Anytime I try to thank any of them for their service, they tell me that they’re the ones who should be thanking us…for lessons learned, for joy received and for the privilege of friendship with kids who have special needs.

 

 

 

The Backstory of this Blog

Me with Laura Beth and Anna G

Me with Laura Beth and Anna G

As this blog has attracted more followers, I’ve been working on a draft of a post to explain the backstory of Merrimack Hall and The Johnny Stallings Arts Program. Thanks to the talented Anna Claire Vollers of The Huntsville Times, I can delete the draft from my documents…she has summarized events and captured the spirit of our organization and program better than I ever could. To hear about all the “why’s,” please read this:

LINK: In new blog, Merrimack founder Debra Jenkins opens up about tough subjects, gains huge following

The Parking Lot is Full

Our classes are held Mondays through Thursdays until 6:30 every week. It’s been a long time since I’ve left the building while classes are going on – I’m either working from home, out of the office for meetings or don’t leave until after classes have ended. Yesterday, I happened to leave the office right at 5:00 and when I walked to the side parking lot where my car was, I was stunned to see that the parking lot was full … and even more stunned to pull through the back alley and see that the opposite parking lot was nearly full!

photo (42)

What the …? I thought. Is there something going on that I don’t know about? Why in the world are there so many cars here when it’s only a normal Thursday? I’ve never seen the lots full except when we’re presenting a professional touring production and for a moment, I couldn’t register why all those cars were there and then I remembered…our little program has grown up quite a bit.

When I walked outside yesterday, there were two dance classes, one visual art class and one adult day habilitation program going on at the same time. I know how many students that equates to – 59 people ages 3 to 60 were in the building, along with probably 40 volunteers – but I guess I didn’t realize exactly how many people that was until I saw all those cars.

For a few blocks, I allowed myself to gloat just a little, which went something like this: All those cars are in the parking lot because I got a brilliant idea while I was cooking spaghetti one night! The cars are there because Alan had the idea to create a new organization in the first place! The cars are there because we built it and they came!

Then honesty trumped ego when I recognized that the parking lots aren’t full because of Alan and me. They are full because of the arts. Those cars are there because almost everyone has an innate desire to express themselves through the arts. Whether you are “typical” or “special” doesn’t matter – people have been dancing around fires, singing and beating drums, painting and writing on cave walls for as long as there have been humans. Before The Johnny Stallings Arts Program started in 2008, there wasn’t anywhere in my community that people with special needs could go to participate in the arts (I’ll share my outrage at that fact in another blog post!) so it shouldn’t be surprising that five-and-a-half years later, the parking lot is full. The arts did it, not us.

If you don’t know the story of how Alan and I got the idea to donate the money to start a non-profit and what led me to create The Johnny Stallings Arts Program, my next post will fill in the blanks. In the meantime, I’m wondering … if we built another parking lot, how long would it take to fill that one up?