Founder Debra Jenkins was trained as a dancer and taught dance for many different organizations during and after college. In November 2007, as she was searching for just the right mission for Merrimack Hall, Debra was inspired to create a dance class for children with special needs. She had no experience with special education, had never worked with kids who have special needs and had nothing in her background to indicate that she might be successful in creating such a class. What she did have was a love for dance and the belief that every child deserves the chance to participate in the arts. She began asking questions, taking guidance from pediatricians, nurses, special education teachers and physical therapists as her inspiration moved from the inspiration phase to a plan of action.
In May 2008, Debra hired Hayley Henderson to collaborate with her. Hayley received her BFA in dance performance from Oklahoma City University and performed professionally for several years after graduation before moving home to Huntsville. Like Debra, Hayley had no experience with kids with special needs to guide her.
Debra and Hayley worked with a physical therapist to create a movement curriculum and recruited 10 students who ranged in age from 3 to 12 and who had a variety of diagnoses including Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy, mitochondrial disease, cancer and others. Several of the students in the first class were medically fragile and all of the children had been denied access to arts activities in the past.
These first 10 students and their parents were true pioneers. As one mother put it,
“I had been praying for a chance for my daughter to be part of a dance class but because of her condition, I never thought that prayer would be answered. I had been struggling with how to tell my daughter that she would never be able to take dance, something she had been begging to do for a year. When I heard about this class, I knew my prayers had been answered.”
Recognizing that each child would require one-to-one assistance, Debra and Hayley recruited 10 teenage volunteers to work with each student and hired a physical therapist to train those volunteers on the basics of working with children who have physical or intellectual disabilities. In a brainstorming meeting, they decided on a name for the class – Dance Your Dreams! and on October 15, 2008, one little dance class was started.
Today, that one little dance class has grown into five distinct programs that provide comprehensive, year-round activities in arts education, a day habilitation program for adults and a monthly series of social events that is serving 403 people who range in age from 3-65, and 268 volunteers. Debra says,
“ “That one little dance class created a chain reaction that caused an entire community to be formed – a community of parents, children and volunteers who never would have met if it hadn’t been for that one little dance class.”
New programs have been added to The Johnny Stallings Arts Program at a rapid but sustainable pace and in response to needs that we see as our students face new hurdles in their lives. Camp Merrimack was created because of a lack of summer activities for kids with special needs; Project UP was created when our first group of students outgrew Dance Your Dreams!; Inspired HeARTs came about because some of our students expressed a desire to participate in an art form that did not require performances; and The Connection was developed as our first group of students graduated high school and were faced with a diminished quality of life due to lack of employment and educational opportunities. We are committed to continuing to expand and enhance The Johnny Stallings Arts Program because we believe people with special needs deserve opportunities to fully engage in the life of our communities.
On June 5, 2010, legendary Alabama football coach Gene Stallings came to Merrimack Hall to help raise funds for the program, which at the time consisted of Dance Your Dreams! and Camp Merrimack. With permission from the Stallings family, the program was officially named The Johnny Stallings Arts Program, in honor of Coach Stallings’ son, Johnny. Johnny had Down syndrome and lived a full and rich life that touched thousands of people across the country. Merrimack Hall is one of hundreds of organizations with programs that proudly honor Johnny’s life.