Merced summer arts show provides therapy, fun for disabled performers


40 people, from children to adults, participated
Alumni return every year
Program focuses on takings risks, stimulating brain, exercise
Lupita Pineda (Center) posses for a photo with guests and friends for the Summer Performing Arts Program.
About 40 disabled and other people of all ages filled the theater stage at Golden Valley High on Thursday with smiles, dance, song, comedy and more. But what some may not have realized is that their performance was part of therapy, education and exercise.
The show was a culmination of Merced County’s Summer Performing Arts Program. It landed on Very Special Arts Day – which brings able and disabled people together to celebrate the arts – and included other programs for the special performance.
Husband-wife duo John and Pattee Russell-Curry run the program. John is a teacher for the orthopedically impaired. Pattee is a board-certified dance and movement therapist.
As Pattee described it, the program encourages those with special needs to take risks, while stimulating their brain and teaching them the craft of dance, stage and performance. Every year, schools and special-needs programs from all over Merced County participate. Adult alumni volunteer to help organize and perform in the show.
“Students come in, and we work and develop skills,” John said. “We get them to stretch. It’s like spraying WD-40 on their gears inside to knock the rust off.”
The program is different than a playhouse in that there is no set show that students work on from day one, John said. “We don’t know what the performance will be like at all,” he said. Pattee added: “Everyone learns, and we pull the ones who feel the most confident for performances.” The performances are all student-picked, choreographed and written.
Building confidence is a key part of the program. Many students are shy and withdrawn at the beginning of the program, Pattee said.
“The world does not expect people with disabilities to take risks, and we’re trying to undo that,” John said.
Take Lupita Pineda, for example, who was born with spinal bifida and must use a wheelchair. The 20-year-old attends Merced College and has participated in the show for seven years. This year, she and others performed Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” and “Anyone Else But You” by the Moldy Peaches.

“I like the energy of being on stage. you forget your disability, and we can show what we can do” – Lupita Pineda, artist

But she didn’t always feel comfortable being on stage.
“At the beginning, it was really different,” she said. “I was really shy, and I didn’t want to come back. But, once I did the show, I really liked it. Every year, it got better and better. I’ve grown a lot. I’m more confident.”
Javier Sandoval, a Weaver middle school student, performed for the first time Thursday and said he can’t wait for next year. He sang Antonio Aguilar’s mariachi “Mi Gusto Es” with Enrique Solorio and George Diaz. “I got nervous when we started to sing,” Sandoval said. “We messed up a little, but we sounded good. It happens to everyone. I had fun.”
Nancy Ayala attends the show every year to watch her son, Frankie Ayala – now 28 – perform. “It gives them the opportunity to have a good time and be with their peers,” Nancy said. “It’s a chance for them to do something that everybody else does since they’re not in the general population. They enjoy singing and dancing like everybody else does.”
The audience, made up of family, friends and community members, plays an integral role in the show’s success, Pattee said. “It’s something really exciting to hear the crowd roar from back stage and see (the performers) say, ‘Wow, they love us.’ The students really transform and bloom and grow.”
Brianna Vaccari, 209-385-2477