GALLOWAY – Avery Wythe, a 17-year-old senior at Pilgrim Academy, has given legs to a program for girls with disabilities – and now they too can learn how to dance.

“I was inspired by my cousin Leah who has autism,” Wythe said Tuesday, July 28. “I’ve been dancing all my life. It seems like an awesome way for them to express themselves.”

She volunteered with her cousin in the baseball program at Absecon’s South Jersey Field of Dreams and in basketball at Hoops for All in Margate.

“I helped her bat and in the field at Field of Dreams,” Wythe said. “I’ve played soccer, basketball and softball – along with dancing. I consider dancing a sport, definitely. It takes a lot of physical activity.”

Wythe is active in many things, including sports, dance, acting, scholastic activities, church, serving ice cream to her customers at Lindy Hops, and volunteering, according to her mother, Patti Wythe.

Her parents, Patti and Scott Wythe have always encouraged both her and her brother to participate in service activities. 

Brother Zack, 23, serves beside his dad on the Port Republic Volunteer Fire Company.

Avery and her mom went on a missionary trip to Haiti last year through their church, Beacon Evangelical Free Church of Galloway.

 “Our time is given to us by God,” Avery Wythe said. “The best way to use it is to give it to others.”

She took her love of service to the next level when she created her own volunteer program and solicited space and helpers for a dance class for special needs students.

“This program was born out of love and concern for a family member,” Patti Wythe said. “Avery’s cousin, 16-year-old Galloway resident, Leah Foster, has autism.”

South Jersey Field of Dreams and Hoops for All provide instruction and opportunities to play sports for children and young adults with special needs, and do so with a winning outcome for both participants who achieve success and volunteers who leave inspired, according to Patti Wythe.

“Avery attended some of Leah’s games and then decided to volunteer,” Wythe said. “She was an official volunteer with Hoops for All this year and loved it. Seeing children and young adults with special needs enjoying the game of basketball with no barriers to their participation or enjoyment was a life-changing experience.

She said her daughter saw the need for a dance program while volunteering at Field of Dreams.

A few years ago, Foster had participated in a mainstream dance class. 

“It was difficult for her as she was unable to fully enjoy the experience due to some judgmental looks and whispers from some who didn’t understand her diagnosis,” Avery Wythe said.

“Leah withdrew from the program,” Patti Wythe said. “Avery started thinking, ‘There are sports programs designed to provide environments for mixed abilities. Why not create one for dance?’

The mother and daughter team – Patti and Avery – came up with the program name.

“Danceability” seemed to be the perfect fit.

“Avery wanted her program to be about ability, not disability,” Patti Wythe said. “She sums it up with this description: ‘A dance program where the focus is on everyone’s ability to express themselves through dance and not on the disability that some may think would inhibit them from doing so.’” 

Avery Wythe contacted some family friends who are special education teachers to get their input, and she asked the dance teacher  she’s worked with for the past 10 years to help with the program. 

“Jennifer Picciotti Graham is part owner and teacher at the Absecon Academy of Performing Arts in Galloway, and was quite willing to donate her time,” Patti Wythe said. “She and Avery starting planning some of the music and activities, and Avery came up with the themes.”

Class space was donated by Gail Hartman of Dynamo Gymnastics Center in Galloway.  “While Avery was explaining the program, Gail’s enthusiasm kept growing, and she said ‘yes’ without hesitation,” Patti Wythe said. “Volunteers to assist the girls came from fellow dancers at AAPA, Avery’s friends from school, other social circles and family members.”

She said most of the volunteers are trained in dance, but others just desired to help in any way they could.

There are 12 volunteers at each class – one for each student, according to Avery Wythe.

“The program was planned for five evenings over five weeks in July and August and was promoted through social media,” Patti Wythe said.

A Danceability Facebook page, email, flyers, and radio interviews with Michelle Dawn Mooney on WPG Talk Radio and Robin Stoloff on Light Rock 96.9 got the word out.  “The class was set to begin with 12 students, and the spots quickly filled up,” Wythe said. “Themes range from the basics of dance to the beauty of ballet, with the class learning about waltzes for the last class and celebrating with a party - and dancers from AAPA dressing as princesses.”

There is no charge for the program. 

“Everyone has been so generous, from donating the facility, to their time and talents,” Wythe said. “It’s been a blessing. Avery would love to see the dancers and volunteers each receive a T-shirt. She’s in the midst of designing one and would love to get a sponsor to cover the cost so that the program remains totally free to the much-deserving participants.”

Feedback from parents has been positive.

Avery Wythe said she is happy seeing her idea come to fruition. 

She said she enjoyed dancing alongside her cousin Leah Monday, July 27 and was happy to see her smiling. 

She said she hopes to develop the program and to offer a co-ed class.

“I know it’s going to be a little tricky with school approaching,” Wythe said. “But I want to have occasional weekend workshops. And definitely we’ll start up again next summer.”

For now, the program is 6:30-7:30 Monday nights at Dynamo Gymnastics in Risley Square off Jimmie Leeds Road. Call 609-457-4187 for information, to sign up or donate T-shirts.

“It’s been rewarding – definitely,” Wythe said. “We dance barefoot. Wear comfortable clothes. We are dancing.”

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