|People with Disabilities Dance and Play through B.E.S.T. Program
April 14, 2008
Contact: Bill Giduz
The dance studio in Baker Sports Complex is heavily used by student members of Davidson Dance Ensemble who create and practice choreography there. Though these dancers achieve beautiful precision of movement, the studio is seldom a more joyous place than Tuesday afternoons, when the dancers are developmentally challenged young adults in Davidson senior Amanda Kuker's B.E.S.T. class.
|Amanda Kuker leads B.E.S.T. participants in dance steps.|
The acronym stands for "Believing Everyone Should Try," and for the past four years Kuker has faithfully organized this weekly opportunity for disabled young people to practice dancing. It's an activity at which most of them are not naturally equipped to excel. But one glimpse of a B.E.S.T. session reveals that excellence isn't the goal. Trying is more than enough to satisfy those involved.
"It's been a remarkable thing for Brennan," said his father, Rich Ferguson of Mooresville. A condition called dyspraxia hampers Brennan's motor skills. "When we started, he couldn't hop on one foot. And now, just look! It's been a remarkable thing not only for his coordination, but for his social skills. He gets to dance with very attractive young ladies, and they have a wonderful time. He comes home energized and happy."
Each of the eight to 10 weekly participants is paired one-on-one with a Davidson student volunteer, most of whom are Kuker's friends in Dance Ensemble. The hour-long sessions begin with stretches. Kuker then leads movements like chass‚s, box steps, and three-step turns. She adds arm movements, and by the conclusion of the hour-long session has built a simple routine to music. Volunteers help students move as they're able, explaining the steps and encouraging their effort. Because the studio is crowded, parents wait outside in the hall, looking on through a glass wall.
Some students have been attending since the beginning. Kuker has never had any problems recruiting participants. Word has spread from parent to parent as they seek counsel in caring for their children. Pam Howard said her son, Andrew, has outgrown physical therapy programs in the school system. B.E.S.T., and a similar program in Charlotte created by the Allegro Foundation, have filled that gap in Andrew's physical therapy. "He enjoys the fun and the interaction with kids his age," said Pam. "I find him practicing his steps around the house, and he talks about other students by name at home, so I know he thinks about it throughout the week."
B.E.S.T. was a natural initiative for Kuker, who lives to dance. She began taking lessons at age 3, and currently practices with several ensembles up to 20 hours a week. She was captain of the Dance Team her sophomore year, and is currently a member of the audition-based Gamut Dance Company on campus.
Her involvement with challenged youth began in high school in New Jersey, when she followed her older brother in becoming a Special Olympics coach for a youngster with cerebral palsy. She helped her brother then organize a soccer program for physically and mentally challenged students. That taught her a guiding-light lesson. "I learned there is no such thing as a small difference," she said. "Some of the smallest differences in ability I witnessed meant the world to an athlete."
Kuker also noted there were few opportunities outside of Special Olympics for these challenged youngsters to get involved in organized physical activities. She determined to do something for them at Davidson, and applied to the Bonner Scholarship office for a community service grant during her first semester. She developed and submitted a complete proposal for the B.E.S.T. program as an organization which could offer recreational activities in both sports and arts. She received the grant, which helps her buy music, refreshments for each end-of-semester party, t-shirts, trophies, certificates of accomplishment and personalized water bottles. Kuker has been the prime mover for the program from the beginning, except for last academic year when she studied abroad with Davidson's program in Wurzburg, Germany.
Kuker sees value not only in the way B.E.S.T. helps challenged youngsters, but also in breaking stereotypes held by her friends who are not disabled. She said, "It helps to dispel many myths that volunteers may have regarding challenged players, and bridges the gap between those who are physically or mentally challenged and those who are not."
"I would love to be able to make a difference in how mentally and physically challenged people are viewed," she continued. "Many people are uncomfortable with them for fear of not knowing how to act."
That can be true of new volunteers in the B.E.S.T. program, so Kuker provides them with a packet of information about interacting with challenged youth, and lets them shadow another volunteer and student before accepting their own one-on-one assignment.
The dance program has been so successful that Kuker decided to begin a B.E.S.T. soccer program this semester. While the dance program is targeted at high school and older students, the outdoor soccer program is designed for younger children.
|A youngster in the B.E.S.T. soccer program defends the goal.|
B.E.S.T. is one of 22 ongoing student community service initiatives at Davidson that work to bridge the gap between college and community. They include groups that address children and family issues, health issues, and hunger and housing. All operate under the umbrella of the "United Community Action" group.
Kuker's major concern now is assuring that B.E.S.T. continues beyond her campus tenure. After graduating from Davidson, she hopes to study law and international affairs. Several underclass volunteers have stepped forward and pledged their participation, but Kuker still feels some separation anxiety. "It's my passion, and I don't want it to fizzle," she said.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,700 students. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country.
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Posted By: Bill Giduz