RICHMOND, Va. -- It's a friendship forged in song. Toney Robinson and Liz Deibel have been friends since middle school.
As members of the School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community or SPARC, the Henrico teens have been a part of SPARC’s Live Art program five years running.
"It really helped grow our friendship even more," Toney said. "It is great because I get to be with really great people."
Live Art introduces students with disabilities and those without, to perform together without judgment.
"The most important thing here at Live Art is how the person next to me doing first," Erin Thomas-Foley, who established Live Art five years ago, said. "Every child needs friends in their lives and needs to have people in lives to take care and not bully them."
Erin said she hoped what students learned here would become part of their fabric in the real world.
"The actions we take in our lives turn into habits. And your habits turn into character. The character is who you are," Erin said.
Liz, who attends Henrico High School’s Center for the Arts, said Live Art helped her overcome debilitating childhood depression.
"I had no way to express my emotion in a positive way," Liz said. "I am so much more confident and committed and not worrying about making a fool out of myself. It has definitely changed my life."
Toney, who attends Hermitage High School, admitted that as a painfully shy child who also lives with autism, he had difficulty fitting in and making friends.
"Back in middle school, I didn't have a lot of support from anybody," Toney said.
Through SPARC, the 17-year-old student found friendship and learned to trust others.
"I always wanted to be on stage when I was a little kid," Toney said. "I told myself everything is going to be okay because I know they have my back at all times."
Most importantly, Toney unearthed his hidden voice.
On the day we met, Toney started singing in a way Erin Thomas-Foley never heard before.
Liz and Toney said they were proof of Live Art’s impact on those who enjoy performing and living in harmony both on and off stage.
Live Art is going international.
Members of SPARC’s creative leadership team – including Erin Thomas Foley – will travel to Austria to direct the Special Olympics Choir in a Live Art production during SPARC alum, Jason Mraz’s performance of “I Won’t Give Up” at the opening ceremony on March 18.
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