On Friday night, 40 performers will take to the stage during "Making Friends with Special Kids,'' a musical extravaganza of dance and tae kwon do.
The event is billed as a fundraiser for Special Kids Dance & Performing Arts of Largo, an organization for special-needs kids. For the families involved, it is much more.
During a dress rehearsal at Crossroads Christian Church, Clare Lemay, swirled across the stage in a white gown. Her mother, Julie Lemay watched her 11-year-old daughter, born with Down's syndrome. "This program helps Clare fulfill a dream,'' Lemay said.
And that is why Lisa Fultz, a lifelong dancer whose second daughter, Kristen, 8, also has Down's syndrome, opened Special Kids in May 2005. "I want every child to have that opportunity to put on a pink tutu or get on the stage and dance if they want,'' said Fultz, 48.
Back in 2005, when Kristen began showing a love of dance, Fultz approached the Lighthouse of Pinellas, an organization that provides children's rehabilitation programs about using a room to operate a dance studio.
"A light bulb had gone off in my head that I could start a dance program like this, because of my background,'' said Fultz, who owned Lisa Marie's School of Dance in St. Petersburg from 1992 to 1995. "Once the president of Lighthouse, Dann Mann, helped us start, we put up ballet bars, opened the studio, and we just grew.''
The nonprofit now operates from two locations, the original space at Lighthouse, located off Bryan Dairy Road on the border of Largo and Pinellas Park, as well as the Palm Harbor YMCA at 1645 16th St. With seven instructors, offerings now include ballet, tap, hip-hop, tae kwon do, art and drama. The staff is volunteer.
"We don't do this for the money. We do it for the kids," Fultz said.
Another parent, Diana Casciato, remembers the first time she recognized how the dance instruction was helping her daughter, Nicole, 5.
"The moment I really saw the difference was last June, at a studio recital. To watch my child in a dance routine, to music, in costume, is something that I would not have imagined her able to do,'' she said. "I cried all the way through, and I know on Friday night, there won't be a dry eye in the house.''
Piper Castillo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.