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Mom Creates Dance Program for Kids with Special Needs, So Everyone Has a Chance to Shine

A Chance to Dance class photo
Image Source: Sarah Nelson Conklin

Kim Smith’s daughter Reagan was diagnosed with both autism and sensory processing disorder at just 18 months old; but that hasn’t stopped the bubbly little girl from following her dreams. And so far, those dreams have included dancing her little heart out.

Now 7 years old, Reagan happily attends a weekly dance class. But sadly, only a few short years ago, Smith couldn’t find any class that would admit her daughter, due to her disabilities.

She tells Babble:

“Between the ages of 5 and 6 I really struggled trying to find a class outside of therapies she attends where she could develop social skills with peers. The last place where she attended a special needs cheer program she would pretty much be left on the sidelines because ‘she required too much’ and they didn’t have enough volunteers although all the other children were matched with a volunteer.”

Reagan Pepper dancing with umbrella
Image Source: Kim Smith

Smith, who has two older daughters as well, was understandably distraught over not being able to provide her youngest with a creative outlet.

“As a parent it was heartbreaking to feel like she didn’t fit in at a place that was exactly where she should have fit in,” she recalls. “I knew there had to be other parents that felt the same way.”

Kim Pepper and Student
Image Source: Sarah Nelson Conklin

As it turned out, there was.

Soon after, Smith fired off a simple Facebook status, lamenting: “I wish I had studio space where I could offer a dance class to children with special needs.”

Moments later, Smith’s dreams (and her daughter’s) would come true, when Donna Mitzel of Miss Donna’s School of Dance, saw the post and offered some space in her dance school. Just weeks later, A Chance to Dance was born — giving Reagan, and dozens of other kids just like her, a place to embrace their creative side.

A Chance to Dance students
Image Source: Kim Smith

Smith first kicked off the program in 2015, with just one class. But she has since expanded the program from one studio to multiple, and added variety of new classes into the mix. In total, the program now has 35 students and 14 volunteers who assist the young dancers, who are grateful to have a non-judgmental environment where they can interact, be themselves, and make friends.

“Even for our nonverbal kiddos it is amazing to watch them blossom,” Smith says, adding that students in each class learn a routine that’s performed at an end-of-year recital.

Students from A Chance to Dance during their recital
Image Source: Karen Garfein

And A Chance to Dance isn’t just for young kids — the students range in age from 3 to 26, and have a variety of special needs, such as autism, Down syndrome, ADHD, cerebral palsy, tuberous sclerosis, prosthetic limbs, schizencephaly, sensory processing disorder (SPD), and spina bifida.

“It’s our goal to always have fun and to maintain a positive, reassuring, encouraging and loving environment,” Smith notes.

The experience has left a big impact not just on Smith, but on her daughter Reagan, as well.

“Reagan has friends now that invite her to birthday parties and last year we had our first ever Christmas celebration and she along with her friends had such a wonderful time,” says Smith. “This program is about so much more than dance … we are a family.”

A Chance to Dance ballet student
Image Source: Kim Smith

Angie Sinyard, whose daughter has tuberous sclerosis, epilepsy autism, ADHD, and SPD, couldn’t be more pleased with the program — or the amazing mother behind it.

“As a mother to a spunky 6-year-old girl who loves to dance, I can’t imagine life without this program and how empty my child’s life would be,” she told Babble in an email.

Sinyard continues:

“My child was told she may never dance. She has already had two brain surgeries at Duke and I’m typing you this email while I sit here at Duke Children’s Hospital waiting room while she is having her scans done of her brain and kidneys to check for new tumors and growth of existing tumors … However, when my child wakes up and we go home she will start getting excited for dance class Sunday. Where she can go be herself and dance her little heart out.”

It’s pretty clear that A Chance to Dance is more than just a dance class, giving it students a sense of purpose and an outlet for them to let loose and just be kids. And most heartwarming of all, it allows parents to see their children glow from the inside out — forgetting, if only for an hour, that they have any limitations.

Reagan Pepper in A Chance to Dance class
Image Source: Kim Smith

Smith says she has so many special memories since the program began. But one of her favorites, from June 2016, always seems to come to mind first. That’s when seven of her students took the stage at Belk Theater at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. (“The same stage where the Broadway musicals perform when they tour here,” she explains.) The girls performed to the song “Reflection” from Disney’s Mulan in front of an audience of 2,000 — where Smith says “they received a standing ovation.”

A Chance to Dance students
Image Source: Kim Smith

“I sat at the very front of the stage watching them, and when I heard the amount of cheering and clapping when they were done dancing, I of course stood up and clapped for them,” Smith says. “I heard someone say ‘Kim turn around.’ When I turned around and saw everyone on their feet I burst into tears. In that moment I knew just how special this was. Those seven princesses received a standing ovation.”

Kim Pepper and students A Chance to Dance
Image Source: Sarah Nelson Conklin

(Excuse me for a second, I think I need a moment to wipe away a few of my own tears. Is this not the most touching thing you’ve ever heard?)

It’s amazing to think that what once began as a simple Facebook status — and one mom’s silent prayer for her daughter — has grown into a thriving dance company that’s added something truly special into the lives of so many kids. Kim Smith and her daughter Reagan have clearly proven that with an open heart (and an open mind) dreams really do come true.

A Chance to Dance student
Image Source: Kim Smith
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