The Johnny Stallings Arts Program relies donor support to provide arts education, and other opportunities to people with disabilities.

She whispered in his ear, "You are my prince, and I'm the princess!" These are the words 8-year-old Elianna told her volunteer during dance class as she spun around in the dance studio while using her canes. Elianna was born with cerebral palsy. Like many people with special needs, she is unable to participate in mainstream arts education programs. Elianna is one of 165 students in the Johnny Stallings Arts Program at Merrimack Hall Performing Arts Center in Huntsville, AL. The core of Merrimack Hall’s community outreach, this program provides arts education for children and adults with developmental and physical disabilities including autism, cancer, Down syndrome and more. The program started in 2008 with only 10 students, and today, it serves 165 children, teens and adults with special needs. In October 2006, Debra and Alan Jenkins founded Merrimack Hall Performing Arts Center. With an initial contribution of $2.5 million dollars, the Jenkins purchased and renovated historic Merrimack Hall as their gift to the community. They continue to be the largest individual financial contributors to the organization and donate over 80 hours each week to oversee every aspect of its operation. In the facility’s state-of-the-art theatre that holds 302 seats, Merrimack Hall presents an annual season of music, theatre and dance to the community. Proceeds from the box office sales provide a steady revenue stream to support the Johnny Stallings Arts Program. In its four short years of operation, Merrimack Hall has accumulated an impressive list of accomplishments. To date, Merrimack Hall has given back more than $350,000 in outreach to the community. The four components of the Johnny Stallings Arts Program are Project UP, Camp Merrimack, Dance Your Dreams!, and Inspired HeARTS. In all classes, each student is assisted by a volunteer who provides the one-on-one support required for students to participate fully in the programs. The classes have grown into daily programs of visual and performing arts education that operate year-round; no other organization in all of North Alabama provides the type of creative, therapeutic, recreational and social outlet that Merrimack Hall provides to people with special needs. When seeking out a participative, extracurricular program, parents of the students have repeatedly been turned away by schools, churches and many other organizations. They are so deeply grateful for the chance that their children receive to participate in activities that “normal” children take part in every day. As our original students grow older and physically bigger, Merrimack Hall is looking for ways to continue to provide them access to the arts, even if they are completely immobile. Dance Your Dreams! offers children ages 3-12 with a variety of diagnoses and disabilities the chance to participate in dance classes; as they age out of this program, the outreach has options for them to continue on with their arts education. Project UP provides ways for teens and adults who are non-verbal, have developmental disabilities or are immobile to participate in theatrical productions. Inspired HeARTS creates a way for teens and adults who are immobile, non-verbal or have developmental disabilities to participate in visual art classes. Dance Your Dreams! is offered at no cost to its participants and includes all dance attire and costumes for classes and performances. Project UP, Inspired HeARTs and Camp Merrimack have a modest tuition with scholarships available upon request. No student has ever been turned away because of an inability to pay, nor has any student been denied because of the nature of his or her disability. Merrimack Hall does everything in its power to accommodate any person who desires to participate in the arts, regardless of the severity of his or her challenges. Merrimack Hall strongly believes that everyone should have the chance to participate in the arts and is determined to be the organization that provides this opportunity to as many children and adults as possible. The future of Merrimack Hall is a constant work-in-progress that includes expanding the ages we serve and the number of classes we offer while also giving all students more opportunities to perform around the community. As the program grows, the awareness of the lack of special needs programs will hopefully create a ripple effect and initiate similar programs for special needs individuals in communities across the country.

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