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After multiple disappointing postponements due to the pandemic, on Wednesday, April 26, 2022, the Camp A.N.C.H.O.R. Drama group finally got to put on their rendition of ‘The Greatest Showman.’ The long-anticipated production that began preparations in 2019, undoubtedly displayed the great skill and talent of the volunteers, actors, stagehands, and all that lend their craft to this wonderful ensemble in an incredible, enjoyable experience for show-goers of all ages.
A.N.C.H.O.R. stands for Answering the Needs of Citizens with Handicaps through Organized Recreation, and Camp A.N.C.H.O.R. runs a comprehensive, year-round program that serves 1,200 children and adults with special needs who live in the Town of Hempstead, Nassau County, Long Island. In addition to their well-known summer program, throughout the fall/winter/spring season, Camp A.N.C.H.O.R. presents an enriching and encompassing schedule of recreational activities on weeknights and Saturdays. Town residents with special needs, five years of age and older, are eligible to participate.
The Drama group participants meet weekly, under the leadership of Sandy Braun, for their chance to take part in this creative acting experience. This Drama program not only serves to spark imagination, build self-confidence, and help the participants develop skills in the “performing arts,” but, like all the other Camp A.N.C.H.O.R. Programs, which run entirely on donations, it also provides much needed reinforcement of a sense of community and belonging to the participants, which is as important now as it ever has been because the special needs community has endured some of the most profound and lasting disruptions to their daily lifestyle due to restrictions and cancellations which persist due to the pandemic.
We can refer to the team that makes this all happen every week for the group as “volunteers,” but truly, they should be recognized for being so much more than that. As compassionate and devoted guides for every member, they selflessly give their time, their energy, and their mental strength to the participants, treating them each like family, and in doing so, they consistently provide the foundation of patience and support, on which this program is founded.
Upon entrance to the theater on the night of the show, you could feel all the positive energy from the volunteers’ warm greetings at the door and see the sheer joy and excitement on the faces of all the parents, participants, and supporters alike. As my sons and I found our way to our seats we were greeted by a lovely woman, a parent, that we later found out was the mother of one of the main characters, Evan DeLeo (P.T. Barnum). She exclaimed, “This is truly the happiest place on earth!” And she was right. She made us feel welcome and a part of the group right away by generously incorporating us into her conversation, and by the time the lights went down, and the crowd got quiet, each of us, myself, my teenage sons, Ms. DeLeo, as well as her (remarkably well-behaved) little buddy that was just about 3 years old, all shared the same look of wonderment as we watched the curtain lift and were immersed into this musical performance.
The show was not without last-minute hurdles, including one actress in quarantine, and another having to come out of retirement and learn two different parts overnight, but none were a match for the absolute and clear commitment of this entire group to work together, at long last, share with us the joy and delight of this production that they worked so hard to present.
If you’re like me and have not seen this musical before, it is based on the story and life of P.T. Barnum, a famous showman and entertainer, and his creation of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. The group did an outstanding job of bringing this story to life on the stage by incorporating all the uplifting music and earnestly delivering the most pivotal lines of the story, hitting the mark each time. While their delivery of the Golden Globe winning hit, ‘This is Me,’ absolutely brought down the house at the end of the show, there were a few other phenomenal musical moments in the performance that I would also like to mention, including the ‘The Other Side’ and ‘Rewrite the Stars’ which were impeccably choreographed and performed.…and the dancers, did I mention the dancers? They were fantastic! It was easy to see just how hard every member of the group worked to perfect this performance.
In perhaps the most poignant moment of the evening, Jess Perrone (Charity Barnum), filled our hearts with her keen line “You don’t need everyone to love you, just a few good people.” Of course, in the context of the story, Charity was saying this to her husband to help him stay grounded while facing the whirlwind of his new life, but I think she struck close to home for all of us in our human experience; each of us has experienced this truth, in one way or another, and it could not have been a more fitting message to take from this experience.
I was invited to attend the show, by Russo Law Group, P.C. client, and long-time Camp A.N.C.H.O.R. participant, Christine Arnone, who has been a participant in the Camp A.N.C.H.O.R. program since 1987, and a part of its Drama program since 1988. In this performance, Christine was playing the Head Laundress in the infamous washroom scene where P.T. Barnum discovers Lettie Lutz a.k.a the Bearded Lady (Jen Corbett).
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Christine about her experience with the A.N.C.H.O.R. Program and she said that “like many [participants], I was on the waiting list to get into Camp A.N.C.H.O.R. for several years before I got the opportunity to attend in 1987.” Once her parents were finally able to secure a spot for her in the program, she attended their summer camp, and in the winter of the following year, she elected the drama program as one of her activities because she wanted to explore some of her already realized singing and acting talents.
I asked Christine what she could tell people to help them understand how important this drama program, and access to the Camp A.N.C.H.O.R. programs in general, has been for her, and she said “Camp A.N.C.H.O.R. was the first opportunity that I really had to socialize and to make friends outside of my school. I was already aging out of my school, and my peers and I do not always get a lot of opportunities, outside of school programs, to make new friends and have new experiences like these. Even though I had attended a few other programs while on the waiting list to get into Camp A.N.C.H.O.R., none of them felt like home the way A. N.C.H.O.R. did, right from the very beginning. The staff really makes you feel welcome, like family. And I have made so many friends over the years.”
If you would like a closer look into all that goes into the makings of one of the A.N.C.H.O.R. shows, a compelling documentary was filmed by Emerging Pictures entitled Yellow Brick Road and is available for viewing on YouTube. Yellow Brick Road chronicles the journey of the group back in the winter of 2004 as they embarked on a four month-long preparation to mount a performance of The Wizard of Oz which is narrated by the group’s directors. Upon learning that this documentary is available, I queued it up and watched it in preparation for writing this blog, and it was a moving experience to watch. Just as the description of the video states, “This documentary will take you right inside this microcosm that is little seen and seldom understood…Ranging from deepest pathos to tender comedy to subtle introspection…”
It is truly remarkable that the A.N.C.H.O.R. programs have been able to enrich the lives of so many participants, running solely on donations since ca. 1979, and I was honored that Russo Law Group entrusted me with the opportunity to present the program with a donation check the night of the show.
The A.N.C.H.O.R Program Fund collects donations year-round, as they rely upon them to make these programs possible. Every dollar collected goes directly to the programs and is used for the benefit of the participants. Their donation platform is set up through PayPal, which makes it very simple, and safe to use, as well as provides the opportunity to donate as little as $5.00. Please consider donating through one of the following links to help keep crucial programs like this accessible to our special needs population and shorten the time that new eligible participants have to wait to get their spot. In addition to general donations, the APF website also allows you to donate to specific programs or trips and provide financial sponsorship of participation in programs by otherwise eligible residents that cannot afford the fees for attendance of the summer program or weekend day trips.
“Every little bit helps us keep these programs running!” –Sandy Braun
The A.N.C.H.O.R. Program Fund – Direct donation link to the charitable, non-profit organization that was established to accept and use donations to maintain and further support programs, fund special activities and events, as well as the necessary supplies and equipment for individuals with disabilities participating under the Town of Hempstead’s Camp A.N.C.H.O.R. Program.
ANCHOR Program Fund’s Upcoming Community Fundraising Events (open for registration to all)
Lindy Loo Foundation is a major supporter of this Drama program, and other similar programs, that provide financial assistance to both children and adults living with developmental disabilities, as well as assistance to programs that provide the opportunity for social interaction and growth within the community.
Author: Kara Marie Nespeca