Being different is acceptable at A Place To Be, an organization that celebrates the gifts of people with disabilities and helps them face life’s challenges using music, dance, creative writing and the dramatic arts. Last June, sophomore Veronica Brown starred in The Little Mermaid at A Place to Be in Middleburg.
“I played Aerial, the lead part,” Brown said. “It was fun because you had to make the costumes, the lights, and help with the makeup. My favorite part was falling in love with Prince Eric in the boat.”
Brown was born with Down syndrome, caused by one extra chromosome, which affects the development of the body and brain. Though the severity of the symptoms varies, certain physical characteristics distinguish someone with Down syndrome, such as a crease on the hands.
“It’s different because there are patterns on the hands, like this one has a line,” Brown said. “There’s a difference. I was born with it when I was little. They didn’t know that I had Down syndrome, and my mom noticed it while I was really little.”
Brown struggles with articulation in her performances, but she memorized all her lines, sang, and danced.
“Generally it’s hard to understand kids with Down syndrome,” Brown’s mother, Maite Dougherty, said. “That’s her biggest challenge, one that she continues to work on, through speech therapy at school, and also at A Place To Be. The memorization? No problem. She doesn’t have stage fright; she loves being on stage, she loves performing.”
Brown is talented in many areas. She plays soccer and basketball, and she bowls in the Special Olympics. She also loves to sing and dance.
“I like writing my songs,” Brown said. “My sister and I wrote a song, and it was really good actually, and that is my dream. My dream is to sing in Times Square. Then I’ll be on live TV in New York, and I’ll be in a band.”
Because Down syndrome makes learning a greater challenge for Brown, she takes her academic courses in classes for students who need extra support. Special Education Department head Amanda Mallory knows Brown well and attended her performance. Mallory describes Brown as outgoing and a natural talent; she cautions against underestimating people with disabilities.
“She’s got the kind of personality where she’s good for anything,” Mallory said. “Veronica will come and chat my ear off, but she can also be very shy. Down syndrome has a lot of physical characteristics. People see those characteristics and are put off, but they really shouldn’t be. Socially for Veronica, it’s [difficult] because if nobody’s talking to you, you’re going to assume that they don’t like you.”
Teens with Down syndrome are known for being very friendly, kind, and easy to get along with.
“I think the stereotyping is going to be her hardest challenge,” Dougherty said. “She can’t hide how she looks. I think she is prejudged a little bit, before she’s been given a chance. [She is] a person who is very much a teenager, like the rest of you, but what’s stopping her from connecting with other people is that people shy away from her first because they don’t understand.”
Brown has been to A Place To Be for other activities, including music therapy, speech therapy, and theater improv, and she participated in last year’s play Aladdin. This year, the cast of Little Mermaid had nearly 40 people.
“The production is really great,” Dougherty said. “It’s very professional – the lighting, the stage set, the costumes – it’s quite elaborate. They take it very seriously.”
The show lasted three nights, with 150 people in the audience each night. Brown’s family came, and Mallory brought her family to see it. Brown signed autographs.
“The self confidence is incredible,” Dougherty said. “You know the feeling when you’ve done a good job; people are clapping, people are congratulating you. People are noticing that you exist. The kids get acceptance, exposure, confidence, a lot of clapping, and a lot of laughing. Everybody has something to offer, and they find it at A Place To Be. It’s brilliant.”
Brown will act in another play called Same Sky this fall.
“I was really brave because all of my family was there – my sisters, my dad, my mom, my stepdad, and my cousin,” Brown said. “You just have to memorize your lines and sing the lyrics of the songs, and just keep on practicing until you get it. Acting is one of my favorite things. I think it’s really good for me.”
~Jake Lunsford, staff reporter