The starry-eyed girl in pink is my grand niece, Lauren Miller, as she appearaed this past weekend in the role of Gabriella in Disney’s High School Musical Jr. - a production of the Special Gifts Theatre for children in Chicago.
(Not to brag or nothin’ but) Lauren has played two leading roles since joining this remarkable children’s theater group four years ago. At age 10 she brought us to our feet - in the title role of Annie. A curtain call I will never forget: when Lauren took her bow, then threw off her wig (itchy!), beaming and waving triumphantly at the audience.
What happens on stage in the productions of the Special Gifts Theatre is nothing short of magic. Building confidence, sharing successes, each child is paired and “shadowed” on stage by a peer mentor teen - to ensure that a full length play goes on without a hitch. “On the ground,” working back stage and in the orchestra pit, are 20 to 30 adults - professionals and volunteers - choreographers, speech therapists, occupational therapists, drama and music coaches. All in it together. Founded in Chicago, the Special Gifts Theatre has recently won national attention and a grant from Disnesy -- with the likelihood that it will roll out as a national program -- a dream-come-true of its founder and exec. director, Susie Field.
In Lauren’s Thank You speech someday, she will have a long list of people to thank -- starting with her twin brother Zach, who has been pushing her and challenging her since birth. Beyond the theater, Lauren has followed in her brother’s footsteps. On ice! While Zach plays hockey, Lauren has found her niche figure skating in the Illinois regional Special Olympics where she’s won gold medals three years in the running. With her connections to Special Olympics, Lauren has had the opportunity to make a number of presentations, including an interview on Radio Disney. In the role of “ambassador” speaking out for children with special needs she had developed a speech about the R word (retard) based on an experience at school. She finishes her speech with the words: Remember R stands for Resourceful and Respect.
Lauren. Never fails to amaze and inspire me. No telling what the future will hold for her. She once told me, “Someday, I want to change the world.” I believe she will.