Navigating through school on a wheelchair can be challenging, to say the least.
When Maisie Eastman was in eighth grade trying to get to her locker, she got caught on the wrong side of two male students who were rough-housing. One ended up rolling into her, cracking the foot rests of the chair.
It’s an isolated incident among many journeys through Maisie’s schools that did not end in disaster. But it serves as a reminder that tasks she undertakes that most people consider routine can be fraught with peril.
“They were not being careful,” said Maisie, now a 19-year-old Purcellville resident and student at Northern Virginia Community College. “But that kind of thing doesn’t happen often.”
For as long as she can remember, Maisie has lived with cerebral palsy, a motor function-impairment disorder that usually appears in early childhood. While people don’t often roll into her and it’s been easier the past few years using an electric wheelchair, she does deal enough with stares and other issues. “It has been a difficult journey,” she admitted.
But about five years ago, she started going to a Middleburg organization that provides music and art therapy to people with disabilities and other challenges. A Place To Be turned out to be the right place to be for Maisie.
The nonprofit organization formed in 2010 by Tom Sweitzer and Kim Tapper, who worked together for several years on theatrical productions at The Hill School in Middleburg. Sweitzer headed the theater department and was artistic director of The Hill Playhouse, while Tapper specialized in choreography for the program. The idea for the new venture was to help people facing challenges that run the gamut from a traumatic brain injury to autism by immersing them in an artistic endeavor where they could gain confidence and more.
From about 20 clients who worked on a few plays, the program has expanded to more than 350 families seen per week and a full-time staff of music and performing arts therapists. Contributions, which includes grants, increased from some $307,000 in fiscal 2014 to almost $600,000 in fiscal 2016.
Most clients are from Loudoun County with some from Fairfax and surrounding jurisdictions, Tapper said. Besides private music and expressive arts therapy sessions, there are social therapeutic groups and other programs like an alternative therapeutic day program for teens and young adults. Some sessions are held at Inova Hospital and other locations besides the main Middleburg headquarters.
Maisie participated in summer camps, music therapy and the girls group. She also performed in recitals. Besides acting, she worked on musical interests, such as playing the piano.
“There was a time when I was younger that I knew I was different and didn’t like that most everyone else could do things I can’t,” Maisie said. “But through the A Place To Be programs, I gained self-confidence. It became a little easier each time to go up there and not have fears of what other kids would say.”
The difference has been noticeable, Tapper said. “Over the years, we watched Maisie grow her confidence through increasing her music and acting skills and through developing friendships with other people in the program,” she said.
Through the Same Sky Project, A Place To Be takes participants into schools and other venues, doing musical and theatrical performances in front of a total of more than 35,000 people since 2011. The program’s shows have included “Behind the Label,” a performance of 15 to 20 teens and young adults centered on the themes of empathy and embracing yourself.
Another show, “A Will to Survive,” even played in a special performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in November. The show was inspired by former Loudoun Valley High student William Robinson, who committed suicide in 2016 after reportedly suffering from depression and bipolar disorder. The musical aims to get more people to think about mental health issues and ways to prevent suicide.
After graduating from Woodgrove High in Purcellville, Maisie enrolled at NOVA Community College. She is studying education and hopes to become a kindergarten teacher.
“The teachers are very accepting of me,” she said. “Every building is handicap accessible, so I can get in and out of each building easily. The hallways are wider and easier to navigate than the ones in high school.”
Maisie has become an advocate for the disabled, speaking about acceptance and other issues. “I believe that everybody needs to understand the importance of music therapy, the arts and inclusion,” she said.