by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Special to The Leaven
OVERLAND PARK — Holy Cross parishioner Theresa DeBrevi prepared her daughter Bella well for her first audition for live theater. DeBrevi wanted to make absolutely sure Bella understood that — even if she did her best — she might not get a part.
“We went over and over that,” said DeBrevi. “I told her, ‘Sometimes you get a part and . . .’ then Bella would finish it for me, saying, ‘Sometimes you don’t!’”
But Bella, a third-grader at Holy Cross School in Overland Park, prepared with her typical resolve and went with her mother to the Christian Youth Theater (CYT) auditions for “Scrooge: The Musical.”
When her turn came, Bella plucked up her courage, climbed to the stage all on her own, introduced herself, and sang.
Her mother sat in the audience with tears in her eyes.
Halfway through Bella’s song, DeBrevi felt a hand on her shoulder. A woman sitting behind her had leaned forward to whisper, “I don’t even know who you are.
“But I’m crying, too.”
An independent spirit
It seems Bella has spent most of her life inspiring people she doesn’t even know.
“Everything that Bella does, she always works hard and gives her best to,” said DeBrevi. “I think it’s inspiring to people because, if all of us did that, imagine what we could accomplish.”
Bella was born with Down syndrome, but she doesn’t let that stand in the way of anything she wants to accomplish — stardom included.
“One of our really big goals for Bella is her independence,” said DeBrevi. “If there’s something she can do herself, then I like to see her do it.
“If there’s something she needs help with, I like to see her try to do it herself first, and then ask for help.”
With that philosophy in mind, DeBrevi and her husband Michael thought getting Bella involved in theater might be a good way to help her build selfconfidence.
They enrolled her in CYT, a nondenominational program that teaches drama, dance and singing through camps and after-school class sessions.
CYT appealed to the couple because it welcomes children with special needs; its HEART program (see sidebar) is specifically designed to help them acclimate.
“They’re just part of the cast like everyone else,” explained Amy Cox, director of PR and marketing for the Kansas City branch of CYT.
“If they have extra needs that we need to meet,” she said, “we do that through our staff and parents, and we don’t make a big deal out of it.”
CYT believes working side by side with children who have special needs teaches other children valuable life lessons.
John Solomon, a parishioner of Church of the Ascension in Overland Park, has found that to be true. His son Jack has been involved with CYT for years.
“It’s almost impossible to describe all the benefits,” said Solomon. “They learn about responsibility, respect, and the dignity that you treat everybody with.”
“A sense of family is created through diversity,” he explained. “CYT is made up of public school kids, home-schooled kids, disabled kids, special-needs kids — just a myriad of kids that [Jack] would otherwise not come in contact with.”
Bella fit in perfectly with this diverse family and fell in love with the CYT program — so much so that she decided to try out for a spot in the winter musical.
Moment of truth
A few days after her audition, Bella, her mom and her biggest fan, older brother Alessandro, went to the CYT Web site to check the cast list.
“She found her name on there and she said, ‘I did it!’” recalled DeBrevi. “It was just a great moment, and I was so glad Alessandro was the first one to congratulate her.”
A fifth-grader at Holy Cross, Alessandro has been his sister’s biggest fan, best friend and greatest support from the moment he first laid eyes on her.
As a matter of fact, it was Alessandro who taught his mother how to care for this special child.
DeBrevi still remembers the day Bella was born — and how she sat in the hospital feeling overwhelmed and lost as she held her new daughter and processed the realization that she had Down syndrome.
“I didn’t really know much about it,” she said, “and a lot of the things I did know were inaccurate.”
And then Alessandro arrived to visit his new sister.
“The first time that he came in, I saw the love in his eyes,” said DeBrevi. “The fact that his sister had Down syndrome was insignificant. I watched him with her and thought, ‘He’s teaching me; we’re going to just love her.’”
The two children have been close ever since.
“With everything she does, he’s always the first one to tell her what a great job she did,” said DeBrevi. “Often I will see him helping her with homework. They’ll be reading together. They just really enjoy each other’s company.”
Because the two were so close, the DeBrevis wanted them in the same school. They feared Bella’s Down syndrome would prevent her from being able to go to a Catholic school. But the Holy Spirit had a plan.
“The Holy Spirit led me exactly where I needed to be and to the people that were supposed to be there to help me along the way,” said DeBrevi.
When it was time for Alessandro to start school, DeBrevi went to visit Holy Cross and told the principal at the time, Maureen Huffy, that she wanted a Catholic education for both of her children.
“She welcomed us, as did the entire school, with open arms,” said DeBrevi. “And we stared working together and were able to make an easy transition into kindergarten. And every year since, things have just fallen into place.”
Bella’s Holy Cross teachers have been especially supportive of her participation in the musical, allowing her to adjust schedules and take extra time with homework.
“And all the kids at her school are very excited about this,” said DeBrevi. “There will be several of them who come to see her.”
Break a leg
When Bella made her acting debut, her dad and brother were in the audience. But DeBrevi had volunteered for greenroom duty, so she had to watch the opening number on a small remote television.
As she squinted at the screen trying to pick her daughter out of the chorus, her phone buzzed. She checked a text message and smiled.
“It’s from my husband,” she said. “Bella is singing.”
A few moments later, her phone buzzed again.
“The opening number is over,” she said. “Bella did great.”
And suddenly the greenroom was filled with excitement and chatter as dozens of children dressed like street urchins poured in. A small group of girls congregated in one corner.
“Did you see Bella?” one asked.
“She sang!” another replied. “She got right up there in front and sang!”
And then, as if on cue, Bella walked into the room — a small bundle of enthusiasm filled with smiles and congratulations for everyone. No one could doubt Bella was thrilled with her first experience on stage.
And no one could doubt that the children who immediately surrounded her were thrilled, too.
Bella has worked hard to keep pace with fellow cast members, and it’s been well worth the effort. She’s gained friends and the confidence her parents hoped for her.
“Watching her flourish with this experience is a dream come true,” said DeBrevi. “She has made so many new friendships, and it’s so nice to watch as she walks in and there’s a new child greeting her.”
Bella’s also shared a few lessons with her new friends.
“I think she’s really taught them about what’s important in life,” said DeBrevi. “That it’s not always about racing to the finish line, but it’s about all the steps you take to get there and how you treat people along the way.”
As part of the Cheapside Company Chorus, Bella will sing and dance her way through 11 performances of “Scrooge: The Musical.” Her parents are as impressed with her talent as they are inspired by her spirit and determination.
“It’s funny. When she was first born, there was part of me that thought I would always be teaching her things,” said her mother.
“But the part of God’s plan in all this that I didn’t realize,” DeBrevi concluded, “was all the things that she would teach me.”
Christian Youth Theater
Christian Youth Theater (CYT) is dedicated to developing character in children and adults through training in the arts and by producing wholesome family entertainment, all of which reflect Judeo-Christian values.
For information on the program and the performances, go to the Web site at: www.cytkc. org ,or call (913) 681-3318.
Helping to Encourage Awareness and Recognition in Theatre
HEART is a CYT program designed for students with special needs. If your child has special needs and would like to be involved, contact program director Josie Strickler by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.