Down the street from Mount Holyoke College is a special place – Berkshire Hills Music Academy. On entering the academy, it is hard not to be won over by the cheerful greetings and the enthusiasm that the students show. Here, young adults having cognitive or developmental disabilities (like Williams syndrome, autism etc), with a special talent for music are nurtured. Students are involved in a number of stimulating activities throughout the semester, like swimming, vocal training, performing in concerts, outdoor trips, and other creative activities.
“Berkshire Hills Music Academy offers a unique, music-infused curriculum which includes a full range of life skills, social skills, functional academics and independent living experiences for individuals with cognitive and developmental disabilities” – Admissions office
In my first semester of college, I joined a program called C.A.U.S.E. (Creating Awareness for Social Equality) and became a ‘Best Buddy’. All volunteers were paired with one student from BHMA; they would correspond regularly and take part in an activity with him/her about twice a month. I vividly remember my first time at BHMA, more than a year ago… We were in the hall, being briefed about the responsibilities and other logistics of the program. For instance, we were not allowed to reveal non-public information about our best buddies to anyone etc. All of a sudden, a tall, healthy and full of life flew into the room, unable to contain her excitement. She was going to have a college friend after all! Our co-coordinator softly suggested her to wait outside.
Imagine my happiness when I discovered that the charming girl was my best buddy, Whitney. A tall and confident girl, she had something enigmatic about her that intrigued me. I could see that in additions to a strong emotional side, she had a levelheaded and reasoning mind. I underwent a short training ssession, meant to equip me with the information to handle emergencies and unexpected situations that may arise during an outing with her. Later I started to know her, and I would ask her questions. Whenevershe wanted to reply in the afirmative, she would say ‘yes’ and ‘yeah’ over and over again, sometimes dozens of times. I recognized it as a compulsion; however I couldn’t help speculating that she might also be reinforcing a positive feeling (‘Yes’) by saying it over and over… that the challenges she had to face helped her develop a stronghold of pure joy… I believe that her happiness, reinforced in this way, seeped into her physical frame, seen in her stature (5’9 or 5’10) and her body strength. Of course physical training like swimming, basketball and piano enhanced her vitality. There may be genetic factors to that favored these qualities in her. However, her recurring chime, her repeated affirmation could only have served to enhance her sense of well- being.
Once we met at a Halloween party at MHC. She had come with all her friends at BHMA, dressed up in costumes, some fancier than others and wearing an expression of glee. I was wearing a blue princess dress and pearl earrings (Who says Halloween is only about scaring people out of their skin?). Looking around the dance floor, you could tell them from others only by the fact that they seemed to enjoy themselves thoroughly. While many did not dance like professionals, one of them was truly better than every other person in the room in my humble opinion. Whitney’s movements, even though simple, had a good finish. As we danced facing each other, she made eye contact and flashed her jovial smile. I was content in this moment, not judging my dance steps or my outfit or anyone else’s. Perhaps her carefree nature and radiating confidence had a role in this. The eye of the beholder saw some shred of brilliance in my smile and forevermore, called me by the name of ‘sunshine’. I truly admire her appetite for life. The story continues…