The Allegro Foundation – A Champion for Children with Disabilities

 

By Lisa Moore

The confident couple looked stunning as they commanded the stage. Harry Sisco, handsome and sophisticated in his crisp, black tuxedo, held Jenna Clayton’s hand.  She looked radiant in her shimmery blue chiffon ball gown and stylish hairdo.

The couple smiled from ear-to-ear as they twirled and glided across the stage. Their endless hours of practice paid off as an appreciative audience roared with applause during a July 4th performance at the Washington Monument.

For Harry and Jenna, who are living with Down syndrome, performing in the nation’s capital was a dream come true. Through their affiliation with Charlotte’s Allegro Foundation they now have opportunities that typically only healthy children could experience.

The Allegro Foundation, a Champion for Children with Disabilities, is a non-profit organization that combines movement instruction with medical and educational expertise to enhance the quality of life for children with disabilities.

Serving children who have orthopedic challenges, learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, hearing and visual challenges, mental retardation, cancer or who are at-risk, The Allegro Foundation focuses on what children with disabilities can do.

Allegro builds the mind, body and soul to create better lives for everyone involved. The program stimulates learning across multiple disciplines, enhances communication and problem solving skills and increases physical coordination and motor skills. The emotional and physiological changes build confidence and reduce behavioral problems.

Jenna has had 58 surgeries in her sixteen years, and her mother, Mary Clayton, feels Allegro has been a godsend. “Jenna has responded to music since she was very, very small. I sang to her as soon as she was born and each time she came out of the operating room. It always seemed to soothe her.”

“When I heard about the Allegro Program, I knew I had to get Jenna involved,” recalls Clayton. “I had read about this woman, Pat Farmer, who had a dream for wanting to mix movement and music for children with disabilities, and I knew that would be the perfect prescription for my angel. After meeting Pat and seeing her gift, I knew it was right.”

Farmer, a Charlotte native, honed her vision for Allegro at an early age. “As a senior at Myers Park, I went to a mental institution and taught movement to children with Down syndrome and mental retardation. There was something in their eyes that I connected with on a very deep level. I knew I was put here on this earth to work with disabled children,” remembers Farmer.

A former professional dancer, Farmer originally started the program while living in Los Angeles in 1991. After returning to her hometown in 1999, she realized there was nothing in Charlotte like Allegro and decided to continue her mission here. Farmer has since worked diligently to demonstrate that children with disabilities can learn, but in unique ways.

The Allegro Foundation currently offers 20 programs in the Charlotte Mecklenberg area and surrounding counties. Classes are held at public schools, preschools and community outreach centers. Allegro representatives work closely with school personnel to plan programs that will satisfy requirements of the N.C. Standard Course of Study in Healthful Living, Math and Literacy curriculums.

Community outreach programs held at Carolinas Medical Center and local churches teach literacy through movement education. The curriculum conveys the idea of sounds “moving” into words that flow into sentences and express a whole thought. Programs focus on interpersonal skills, teamwork, mathematical concepts and problem solving.

Allegro’s Mentoring Program inspires local youth to give back to their community. Trained youth and teens work as a “peer buddies” with a specific children and are responsible for helping with stretches and movement sequences, props and costumes, as well as social interaction. “I don’t know who gets more out of this – the peer buddies or the children with disabilities,” states Farmer.

The impact of the Allegro Foundation makes extends far beyond the children it is intended to help. The families of these kids are deeply affected as well.

“Many times parents have told me that there is no place where their child truly feels welcome. Allegro changes that, not only for their child, but also for them,” says Farmer. “They feel accepted, loved and appreciated by Allegro. It’s not just the child we work with; the dynamics of the entire family changes.”

“The child with disabilities in the family gets to succeed at something for themselves and that impacts the entire family unit,” adds Farmer. 

Many children have shone in the spotlight at numerous local and national performances. In December 2004, The Allegro Foundation was the first group of children with disabilities to perform at the White House. Their performance was so well received that they were asked to return for a 2005 Christmas event.

“Being called by the administration and personally invited to come again meant so much to us,” smiles Farmer, who was recently appointed to First Lady Laura Bush’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

Despite the massive progress she has made over the years, Farmer continually strives to reach more of the 15,000 disabled children in Mecklenberg County. In addition to a strong Board of Directors and a dedicated staff, Allegro has over 600 well-trained volunteers with duties ranging from fund raising, mailings, constructing props, sewing costumes and working directly with the children.

“We serve 400 children annually but have the capacity to serve 1200. We desperately need to get corporate Charlotte more involved,” asserts Farmer.

Classes are free to the participants and funding comes from private donations and grants. The Allegro Foundation is not a United Way agency or an affiliate of the Arts and Science Council.

“I consider this organization homegrown. What better way to say what a great faith community and school district Charlotte has. They gave me the roots and foundation to create this powerful organization,” Farmer notes. “We are very grateful to the Charlotte community, but we need ongoing support and more donors.”

Mary Clayton acknowledges how much Allegro has enriched Jenna’s life. “Allegro and Miss Pat have helped create some of the most wonderful memories Jenna will ever know. Seeing Jenna learn movement and actually perform makes one young girl feel amazing and special.”

“And for that brief time, we look beyond her health issues and focus on just how beautiful and successful she can be.”

To learn more about The Allegro Foundation visit allegrofoundation.net or call 704-412-5229.

Lisa Moore is a freelance journalist in Charlotte, NC.

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