On Saturday morning, my family and I, along with 500 other people packed into CenterPoint Theater in Centerville, witnessed a miracle during the annual “Friend to Friend Christmas Program.” We watched a young woman named Shay sing almost an entire line of “Silent Night.” Her brief performance prompted applause and cheers from the audience, and brought tears to the eyes of those who know Shay.
If you knew Shay, you would know that she goes through most of her life without words. Shay has autism, and will never experience many of the things you or I may take for granted. She has been participating in “Friend to Friend Junior” for several years now. In previous years, Shay would march on stage, find a spot of the floor and rock back and forth while her classmates danced and sang. Through the persistence and patience of people who love her, Shay has come to know the stage as a place of comfort, a refuge where she can experience the joy of sharing her talents and her unique voice with others. For those of us who have witnessed Shay’s journey, “Silent Night” has never sounded so beautiful.
There are countless other stories similar to Shay’s in the “Friend to Friend” family. “Friend to Friend” is a weekly theater class for people with “remark-abilities.” It is part of CenterPointe Theatre’s outreach program, is free to participants, and is run by dedicated volunteers who love these exceptional souls. “Friend to Friend” began in 2011 when my brother-in-law, Matthew Davies, wanted his friends with special needs to have the opportunity to experience the joy of performing, as he does.
The class began with six members and three coaches and has met weekly ever since. There are currently 65 participants, separated into three different classes: Friend to Friend Littles (ages 3 to 8); Friend to Friend Junior (ages 8 to 15); and Friend to Friend (ages 15 and up). Twenty-seven volunteer teachers and coaches support the classes, and, if asked, will describe Friend to Friend as the highlight of their week.
You would be hard-pressed to find better examples of friendship than the members of these classes. They cheer for each other; they cry with one another; they literally help each other walk; they heal one another. Friendship has worked miracles in the lives of these individuals. Take, for example, Zach who upon his first introduction to the class refused physical touch of any kind but will now gladly accept hugs from his classmates. Or Terri Lyn, who lived most of her life in silence, not because she couldn’t speak, but because she just didn’t. Terri Lyn recited her part of the Nativity play with eloquence and volume this week. Her parents credit that development to her time at Friend to Friend. Or there is Lori, who suffers from a disorder that causes 10-12 seizures a day — except on the days when she comes to Friend to Friend. On those days, her seizures decrease by more than half, offering her a welcome respite.
We don’t talk about miracles much in this age of skepticism, and sometimes they can be hard to see. My family and I are grateful for the miracles we have witnessed through Friend to Friend. We have come to love our friends with “exceptional-ities,” and they bless our lives year round. Their Christmas performance is the highlight of the holiday season, and has become a beloved tradition. We are not alone. Both of this year’s shows sold out, and next year’s show is certain to be the hottest Christmas ticket in town.
Dan Liljenquist is a former Republican state senator from Utah and former U.S. Senate candidate. He is nationally recognized for work on entitlement reform.