Have your ever driven around the bend near Marvel and looked up at the building at 250 Lido Boulevard – The Theresa Academy for the Performing Arts – and wondered, just who is Theresa?
I have. So I went to find out.
There, I met the effervescent, smart, and spirited, Susan Russo. A North Carolina native, she found her way to the barrier island many years ago after marrying a local boy. She’s a dancer, philanthropist, and quite possibly – an angel among us.
The Theresa Academy for the Performing Arts, called TAPA for short, is named for Theresa Russo, the third child of Susan and Vincent Russo. Born in 1986, she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and microcephaly; a condition that causes the brain to grow much smaller than normal. Only one doctor believed Theresa had a chance of making it past her first birthday and health professionals encouraged her parents to institutionalize her. But they said “absolutely not” and brought her home.
Theresa was unable to talk or move, but her mother was determined to settle her into the family routine along with her two other children. Even though Theresa was non-verbal, Susan says, “You could tell if she was upset, and she could smile, giggle and laugh.” Wherever the family went, so did Theresa. “She was well-traveled,” Susan relates with pride, “Vermont, North Carolina… California.” The Russo’s later expanded their family with a fourth child.
In 1991, right before Christmas, Theresa suddenly passed away. She died right in her mother’s arms. “I fully believe she thrived because we brought her home,” Susan says. She was five-and-a-half years old.
At the urging of a family friend, Susan and Vincent poured their grief into founding The Theresa Foundation. Their aim was to raise money to support programs for children with special needs – something first on the chopping block when budgets are slashed. Their personal experience taught them how important these programs were, not only for the children, but their siblings and families as well.
In 2009, Susan and Vincent took the foundation a step further and opened The Theresa Academy for the Performing Arts “to give kids with special needs a typical after school experience, with dance, drama and art.” Susan firmly believed that educational theatre, movement therapy, and visual arts could enrich their lives.
The performing arts was already a subject Susan knew very well. She earned a BS in Dance Education from the University of North Carolina – Greensboro, a Masters in Dance Education from Columbia University, and had years of teaching under her belt.
The Russo’s designed the academy to contain several spaces for instruction, including a black, floor-to-ceiling theatre for performances. They teach dance, yoga, music and art. Hallways are covered with art work created by the children.
They can accommodate between 16-18 kids at one time; most have varying degrees of Cerebral Palsy, Autism or Down’s Syndrome. Everyone gets a one-on-one buddy – so the student body is contingent on the number of available volunteers.
Beyond providing an artistic environment, TAPA gives the kids a sense of community. With a smile Susan explains, “they’re able to make friends here.” Snapshots of the children are displayed in the foyer, and Susan knows the name and story of each and every one.
During summer, they offer a camp session inside the fenced-in green area adjacent to the building. One of the highlights is a guest artist named Sidiki Conde. Fondly referred to as “the kid whisperer” Sidiki (who is paralyzed from the waist down) teaches drumming and African dance to the delight of the children and the staff.
80% of the kids who attend are on scholarship, so fundraising is critical to the organization. If you’re inclined to help, there are several ways to support their mission:
Their first fundraiser of 2017 is coming up on January 16th. Theresa’s Fun Day Bowling Fundraiser takes place at Farmingdale Lanes. $20 gets each bowler 2 games, pizza, soda and shoes.
The 23rd Annual Theresa Awards Dinner at the Bridgeview will be held next spring. Check back here for 2017 details to be posted soon.
Next June, the North Hills Country Club will host their 20th Annual Swingin’ Fore Theresa Golf Outing and Gala Reception. This event helps raise money for the summer camp program.
And of course, money donations are always welcome – click here to access the website.
Susan told me that they’re always on the look-out for volunteers and interns – at both the academy and local schools. Particularly, kind-minded high school or middle school students to sit with special needs kids during their lunch period. “Most of these kids don’t have friends, and we encourage other kids to sit with them at lunch so they don’t have to sit alone.” All volunteers are given proper training before they start.
As Susan finishes up my tour of the center I suddenly stop in my tracks. Framed on the wall is the unmistakable work of Hedy Pagremanski, who I wrote about in my previous blog. It’s a print of Long Beach Marches into the Millennium, in all its glorious color.
Susan smiles and points out some figures smack in the middle, “There’s my family right there.” The Russo’s – with Theresa framed above them – all expertly captured by Hedy. Small world. And what a wonderful moment of synchronicity for me.
It seems that Susan has definitely found her life’s purpose. I ask if there’s any quote or piece of advice that she carries with her.
“Yes,” she says, “it’s from Maya Angelou…”
“Be the rainbow is someone else’s cloud.”
Mission accomplished Susan.
Just a little sidebar here – husband Vincent Russo (an elder care and special needs attorney – his office shares space with the academy) hosts a show on Telecare called Family Comes First. It features local families facing everyday issues.
Coming up next on Short Stories from Long Beach: Moving to the beat with Dance and Movement Therapist, Lisa Wisel.