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Melissa is completely at home under the bright lights of a stage, and that's a good thing since she's a professional magician. She and her father Jay perform side by side across the country, and one of their favorite acts tells a story of transformation and compassion.
As the act begins, Melissa shows the audience a seemingly plain black bundle of silk. But as anyone who's seen a magic show knows, things are never as they seem. As the act unfolds, so does the silk, and the black silk becomes a beautiful tapestry emblazoned with a butterfly. While any magic act leaves its audience awed, this one is even more astonishing because Melissa has Down syndrome. The magic is just one way she works as a self-advocate, teaching people about her disability.
As Jay explains, the magic bundle of silk is a way to help the audience understand people with disabilities. When people first look, they just see a piece of fabric, but as they watch, it becomes something more. And that's how it often is for people with disabilities.
"Sometimes, when people look at Melissa, they just see Down syndrome," says Jay. "But when they look deeper, they see her abilities, not her disability." Since Melissa was just a little girl, her parents have worked to give her wonderful and exciting experiences. They've traveled the world, they love going to the theatre, and they've had too many adventures to count. "Our philosophy as parents has been to open as many doors for Melissa as we possibly can," says her mother, Janis. But there was one door that still needed opening.
"As Melissa got older, we worried she wouldn't have enough social interaction," Janis explains. "So we met with some social workers at Kennedy Krieger Institute and started a club for girls with Down syndrome called Circle of Friends. "Through careful guidance from their parents and the team at the Institute, the girls learned about everything from what Down syndrome is to how to cope with body changes. And when the girls entered their twenties, their families and the staff at Kennedy Krieger realized it was the time to start something new.
"We wanted to get younger children involved," says Janis, "and give the older girls a chance to use what they'd learned to guide those younger children." And so Brightside -- a mentoring program for children with Down syndrome between the ages of 13 and 17 years -- was born. The social workers at Kennedy Krieger trained the Circle of Friends members, as well as other young adults with Down syndrome, as mentors. They learned how to build relationships with the younger kids and accompany and support them during educational outings to museums, sporting events, and local businesses.
Currently, Melissa is mentoring twin sisters, Dakota and Cheyenne, who are 13 years old. Although they are typically very shy, the girls quickly took to Melissa. Their mother, Debra, says that the Brightside program is one of the best opportunities her girls have ever had.
"They have a friend to look up to and trust," Debra says. "They can see Melissa and the other mentors breaking new ground for people with Down syndrome."
Thanks to the Circle of Friends and Brightside, Melissa gained the confidence she needed to succeed in her own life. She became the first person with Down syndrome in Baltimore County to earn a Maryland High School diploma and went on to community college where she earned her child care certification. She has been a teacher's assistant at a local preschool for five years and she's on the board of the National Down Syndrome Congress. She's even given talks at Loyola College and Johns Hopkins University, and has been a keynote speaker at Down syndrome conferences.
And as if that weren't enough to keep her busy, she's giving back as a Brightside mentor, helping other children with Down syndrome blossom and grow, just like the butterfly on the colored silk.