Special needs event shines at NarroWay

jmarks@fortmilltimes.comJuly 24, 2013 

— NarroWay Productions not only set a spotlight on special needs Saturday, but also to the possibilities of overcoming.

Saturday was the first Beyond the Barriers event at the Fort Mill theater. Special needs patrons of all ages and all disabilities played games and received information about area services. Cast animals — a camel, sheep, goats and donkeys — provided a sensory petting zoo on the main stage.

Cheryl Lipian, director of marketing, came up with the idea of what she hopes will become an annual tradition. Lipian has a special needs sister. She remembers feeling nervous about going places with her family, for fear of what might happen or how others might see it.

“We couldn’t always go places,” Lipian said. “In our situation, we were afraid.”

But it was Lipian’s experience at NarrowWay that changed some of her perceptions. She thought about giving up as a cast member until she met Matthew Leonard and Gina Hannagan.

Leonard has Down syndrome. He also has a litany of show credits in 10 years with the group, and starred in Saturday’s “Not Just Another Love Story.” Hannagan describes herself as “the first totally blind, partially deaf, dog guide-using actor” in the history of NarroWay.

Hannagan has been with the group for two seasons, and plays Geronimo’s mother in “Wounded Warrior.” She has also been in “A Tribute to Mothers” and taught another actor who played a blind person in “The Fourth Cross.”

“Don’t think these accomplishments were easy,” Hannagan told the crowd Saturday. “I have had to overcome many barriers.”

Hannagan said it isn’t easy navigating backstage with animals and people bustling everywhere. Costume changes aren’t easy. Just making sure she picks the right one, and that she is turned the right direction on stage, are challenges.

Hannagan joked her one advantage is never having to complain how dark it is backstage.

“That was just normal for me,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to laugh.”

The Rock Hill resident also has a little help in her service dog, Princess. Princess is becoming a somewhat accomplished actor herself.

“She dines with me,” Hannagan said. “She dances with me.”

Leonard urged the crowd not to be limited by their handicaps.

“God made us so, so special,” he said. “Don’t forget Jesus loves you.”

Both actors say God has a special, unique purpose for everyone, even those with limitations. The question is whether people pursue those passions and purposes.

“I followed my dreams (to be) an actor at NarroWay,” Leonard said. “And you follow your dreams, too.”

Hannagan hopes she can be a voice for the handicapped. She has already taken mission trips to China, where she teaches blind students English. Just don’t refer to her, or people like her, as disabled, she said. Disabled means there’s something someone can’t do, according to Hannagan. Handicapped, she said, means there’s a reason to try harder.

“A handicap is a condition that makes success more difficult, but not impossible,” she said. “We may have to do things differently, but we still get things done.”

Even when the task is inspiring others.

“I thought if they can do this with such a great attitude, I can too,” Lipian said. “They inspire me. I thought if they could inspire me, they could inspire so many people.”

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