Darby's Dancers: Helping kids of all abilities find their happy place

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Every Wednesday night, 11-year old Carly Adams leaves the world behind and uses her wheelchair to go in search of her happy place. It's a place where she can be herself, where she can hang out with friends and not have to say a word. Which is nice, because Carly can't speak.

Annabell Schreier is Carly's best friend. She walks up to Carly, "Hi how are you?" and Carly does her best to blow Annabell kisses. Annabell then asks Carly if she's ready to go. She pushes the wheelchair down the winding hallways toward a room filled with music. Annabell says, "Carlybell, ready for the music?"

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15-year old Annabell became friends with Carly last year when they were paired up in a locally-grown dance program called Darby's Dancers. It connects kids with special needs with volunteer coaches. Annabell talks about the day she met her new partner, Carly. 

"I remember my first time I was like, ‘oh my gosh this is a lot.’ But now, it's so worth it," she said.

It works because the coaches and dancers are so invested, not only in weekly rehearsals but in each other. The dancers give the coaches everything they've got. And the coaches meet the dancers where they are, not where they want them to be.

Zach Wolk is a student coach, and tonight his partner is Owen. They're learning a detailed routine that requires a fair amount of focus. Zach says to Owen, "Take a picture so you remember where you are."

Zach knows how to motivate Owen, and keep him interested.

"Owen learns with a lot of high fives, hugs and good encouragement," he said.

Dawn Turner

Dawn Turner started Darby's Dancers about four years ago where there were 10 kids in a six week program.

Dawn had no experience running a dance program, but she had a personal motivation, a sassy southern belle by the name of Darby Jones.

"She was a fighter until the end, you know," Dawn said.

Dawn's daughters grew up with Darby in their home state of Alabama. Friends since kindergarten, the girls shared a love of dance and became extremely close.

Years later, Dawn's Faily would watch Darby fight Leukemia, over and over again.

Dawn said she would go and have chemo and “still want to go to dance. And her mom, she would have the mask on her and she would go and dance and Valerie said she would just collapse in the car afterwards because she was exhausted but she was not going to give up on dance."

Darby's mom, Valerie Jones, says Darby was too sick to go to school but she insisted on going to dance class.

"She didn't have any hair on her head…she'd have her little tiara," she said.

In 2013, 14-year old Darby Jones passed away after her fourth battle with cancer. By then, Dawn's family had moved from Alabama to Minnesota.

"I wasn't there, being there to help. I was a thousand miles away but it felt like a million miles away," Dawn said.

Valerie felt helpless, too, but tried to focus on what Darby would want.

"Everybody handles grief differently,” she said. “But, for me, I had to do something that was positive and productive, something I knew Darby would be proud of, and something that would carry on her beautiful legacy."

Together, they took the first steps of an inspired journey. They found a dance studio in Maple Grove that would donate classrooms and instructors.

Fundraisers cover everything else.

Laura Bauer's daughter Julia is one of Darby's Dancers.

"What's unique about Darby's Dancers is that it is free for us parents, for us that pay for therapies and whether it's just extra medical bills and things like that…to have an organization support our kids and have their costumes paid for and class. So we really appreciate the dance studio also," Laura said.

Amber Huffman is co-owner of The Dance Complex, the studio that decided to integrate Darby's into their curriculum.

“It's not an extension…they're a part of our studio," she said.

And that includes taking part in the same competitions and recitals as the rest of the studio. The dance they're practicing now will be unveiled at a performance in March.

Madyson Bartsch is one of Darby's Dancers.

"I know it's a little hard, but I memorize it a lot," she said.

Leah Streeter, another dancer, said "it makes me feel so excited because I love being around friends and coaches."

Leah's mom Jennifer sees her daughter shine when she's dancing.

"She has just more self-esteem, she's happy when she comes here,” Jennifer said.

You can see it on every face in here. The dancing is a release, but actually a small part of the experience. The real payoff is in their confidence, their gratitude and their joy.

“[Carly] is my best friend. She's amazing,” Annabell said. “I gave her a pillow with our pictures on it so now she sleeps with it every night."

"To hear their experience and how it impacts them…most of them end up in tears because it's just so incredibly life-changing for them," said Amber Huffman.

All this from a young girl who was inspired to dance in the rain so that others could find their happy place.

"There is absolutely nothing that she wanted more than to see everybody be happy. So I know she is smiling a huge smile and she's very happy about it," Valerie said.

There are five Darby's Dancers groups in Minnesota: Maple Grove, Woodbury, Blaine, St. Michael and Forest Lake. There are 21 in the entire country.

If you'd like more information on how to start one in your neighborhood or if you'd like to support the dancers, here is a link to the Darby's Dancers website. You can also donate to the fundraiser here.