The Dream Factory at Merrimack Hall
By Ann Marie Martin
Don’t you love watching a dream come true?
It happens just about every day at Merrimack Hall Performing Arts Center.
“Happy Headquarters” started in 2008 with one weekly dance class for 10 children with special needs. Now it overflows with the active dreams of more than 500 children and adults, plus more than 200 volunteers, plus staff members, plus founder Debra Jenkins.
Debra and husband Alan Jenkins got into the dream business in 2007 when they opened the arts center in the building that once housed the company store for Merrimack Manufacturing Company. The building also served as the community hub for the surrounding textile mill village built in 1900.
“I didn’t know anyone with special needs before we opened Merrimack Hall,” Debra says. “When I found out children with special needs couldn’t take dance classes, I had to do something.”
Anna Chilton is one of Debra’s star dreamers, and she’s getting ready to take one of her biggest dreams on the road. For Anna, a veteran of cool road trips, it’s not such a huge leap. She and her Merrimack teammates have performed in Tuscaloosa at the University of Alabama and in Los Angeles.
This time, Anna’s signed up for an extended run.
In August, the 2015 Grissom High School graduate moves into her dorm room at Clemson University as a ClemsonLIFE freshman. The program offers academic coursework and career exploration to students with intellectual disabilities.
Anna can’t wait to go to pep rallies and concerts – classes, too. She’s eager to study art, first aid and nutrition. Health care interests her. She’s already had experience in that field.
She graduated in 2016 from Project Search, which gave her the chance to work at Huntsville Hospital for Women and Children, where she put her organizational ability and people skills to good use. For the past two years, she’s worked at Total Sports and Family Care, but she quit recently to get ready to go to Clemson.
Anna’s mom, Alisa Chilton, had college hopes for her daughter when she was born with serious health issues and Down syndrome. Anna had her first surgery, open heart, when she was just a baby.
“For the first year and a half, she was fragile,” Alisa says. “But when we got that oxygen flowing, she turned pink, and she never stopped. She was fast and stealthy.”
“I was big trouble,” Anna says with a grin. The little girl needed an outlet for her energies. At age 10, she found it at Merrimack. She still studies art, hip-hop, calisthenics, yoga and acting. Hip-hop’s her favorite. She’s a member of the competition and performance teams and the choir.
“Anna and all of her friends take care of each other,” Debra says. “They build each other up. It’s such a beautiful support system.”
Merrimack has been Anna’s backbone, her mom says. “They’re giving these young adults a voice in a world that’s told them ‘no.’”
Merrimack Hall’s a dream factory. New visions keep popping up.
Debra and Alan’s son Austin and his fiancée Hollie are preparing to open a coffee shop, Charlie Foster’s, in the redeveloped Stovehouse. The shop’s name honors a real worker from the early years of Merrimack Mill. Ten-year-old Charlie was photographed going to work at the mill in 1913. The photo aided efforts to end child labor practices.
Austin and Hollie plan to employ individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. When Anna’s home on breaks from Clemson, maybe she’ll join the crew. Austin’s already requested her time and talents.
He knows you’ve got to have good fuel to drive strong dreams.