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I love to dance. When I was a little girl, I would twirl in circles, whimsically thinking I might be a ballerina. Once I became an Activities Director I was happy to realize that dancing might be part of my daily routine because the Elders I worked with loved to get up and dance more than anything! I spent so many years dancing with them and enjoyed it every single time.

With that in mind, last week we launched our first installation of Wendy’s Neverland in Morgantown, Kentucky. I had dreamed of this  moment for almost ten years, since first hearing of the wonderful Anne Basting and her brilliant Penelope Project. Finally, here we were.

The air was thick with excitement when I walked into Morgantown Care and Rehabilitation a few weeks ago. The chatter of Elders, Stakeholder and visitors was resounding in my ears so loudly that it shook me to my very core. Today the artist team had arrived and began to meet with Elders. Their presence in the building had already started to transform it before any of the work had started to take place.

Each day, the home altered its “activities” program to include things like dance rehearsals, cloud designs, sign making for the set, costume workshops and a magical run through of flight school. So much purpose all around and so much joy on every face.

It was during this process that Shirley sent for me. Shirley had been our Activities Director in this home for more than 40 years before coming to live with us. Shirley had always been a Champion in our organization. She worked tirelessly to bring countless volunteers and community members to interact with the Elders. Shirley wanted to know exactly what was happening in the building. After some discussion she agreed to be part of the performance and would be up to take her spot as “Queen of the Fairies”.

Shirley also wanted to dance. She wanted to be part of the choreographed routine set to “Fly Me to The Moon” by Frank Sinatra. Not only did Shirley want to dance, but she wanted to dance with ME! I had not planned on being part of the performance, but here we were gathering our costumes for our big dance.

What transpired over the next two weeks will forever change my life. Shirley and I met everyday at 2:00 and practiced our dance portion. She also had a welcoming role as well as a closing prayer piece in the performance. The first few days she came, I witnessed so many people greeting her. She was quite the celebrity and I was so proud to get to dance with her!

We got our matching “tutus” because we were fairies of course. I wore my fairy wings on my back but she wore hers on her wheelchair. We decided to wear flowers in our hair. Nicole graciously painted flowers and magical swirly designs on our faces each day. Shirley always requested purple for us both because she knew it was our favorite color.

Finally, opening day was upon us. There was so much excitement in the air as the group prepared for the first show! Just walking through the main space was breathtaking as all the Elders were getting their costumes readied and some extra touches to their hair and makeup. You could feel the joy and excitement as Clare would yell “10 minutes to places” and the glee as the Elders yelled back “thank you 10”!

Suddenly it was time. Shirley would go out onto the porch and welcome the crowd to “Wendy’s Neverland”. She looked regal as any queen would look on her throne. The sheer beauty of it caused my eyes to tear up. She was in her rightful place, welcoming the community to her home.

We danced gloriously together for the next four days. When our final performance day approached, it was bittersweet. We were so joyous that it had happened but so sad to see it end. About 300 people had been through and saw the performance so far and this one would be no different. Our largest crowd ever was anticipated for the final day. As we prepared to dance our final time, Shirley grabbed my hand and said, “thank you for these dances” and it touched me to my very core. I said, “let’s do this again today, shall we?” and she agreed.

See, I thought that in all of this I could help change our Elder’s lives. Instead, dancing with Shirley changed mine. When that music came on, I was suddenly five years old and dancing in my tutu without a care in the world. I loved playfully twirling around Shirley with the words to “Fly Me to The Moon” blaring in the background. I will never forget her smile as I circled her chair or the way she squeezed my hand so tight. I will forever remember my beautiful daughter’ face as Shirley held her hand up and said “I believe in you” to her. The moments came fast and hard and took my breath away.

I realized it was ok to play again. It was good to just be happy in the moment. It was so empowering to allow myself to be present in that space with Shirley. Dancing with Shirley changed me forever and I can’t wait to see this happen again and again and again.