The artistic director of the TRDance Center in Hampton Roads, Virginia says, “How could I say no?” If you have never met Melissa Zaletski (alias Mrs. Z), you really can’t imagine what this means! Mrs. Z came to me via the Buddy Walk for Down Syndrome Awareness in Memphis, TN. For three years, I was the volunteer chair of the event, which was and is the largest disability awareness event in the Mid-South. Like many of the Down syndrome walks throughout the country, we were an all-volunteer organization with no office space and the event operated out of my house and garage. Our local paper ran an article on our upcoming walk and my phone number was listed as the contact. One morning the phone rang and it was Mrs. Z. She had seen the article and her grandson had just been born with Down syndrome. He didn’t live in Memphis but she wanted to come. I told her the info and thought she was very nice but that was probably the end of it.
Silly me. Mrs. Z showed up along with her husband Mr. Z. She found me – no easy feat because there were about 2,000 people and the setting was the Memphis Botanic Garden. She had a big button on with a picture of beautiful grandson, Gus. From then on, Mr. and Mrs. Z became some of DSAM’s most staunch supporters and dependable volunteers. She joined the walk planning committee and we put her in charge of our in-kind donations to be used as prizes. She made a record haul. Mrs. Z is nothing if not persistent. She marched in everywhere she went with her “Gus” button in full sight. When we got office space, she was there to help clean and organize. She and Mr. Z became our registration regulars at events. When we needed someone to learn to be a puppeteer for our Kids on the Block Puppet Partnership, she was the first phone call I received. One of our puppeteers had Down syndrome and her mom worked full-time. Amanda couldn’t make it to the practices or to the performances at the school without a ride. Mrs. Z offered to be that ride. Mrs. Z will tell you that some of her most treasured times are those hours spent with Amanda. Through the partnership, over 25,000 students have been reached with a message of acceptance and inclusion of individuals with Down syndrome.
Mr. Z retired and Mr. and Mrs. Z decided they wanted to be close to their grandchildren to off to Norfolk, Virginia they went. It was very sad for us because we treasured both of them so much and depended on them. I didn’t want them to go. My husband Jonathan says I was selfish wanting them not to go. He was right, but I knew someone else would benefit from their generosity and her fierce determination. Boy, was I right. She didn’t stay still long. After reading an article in People magazine about an adaptive dance program through Children’s Hospital of Boston, she wanted to start an adaptive dance program in Hampton Roads. She was already volunteering for the Down syndrome group there so she started pitching it. It’s hard to say no to Mrs. Z and she had phoned the Boston group and started talking to therapist. Guess what? They now have an adaptive dance program in Hampton Roads! Today I wanted to pay tribute to Mrs. Z and let you all get a glimpse of the program she has helped to start. It was featured on a local television program, TRDance Adaptive Dance for All Abilities, and has been featured in several news articles. Her grandson Gus participates. It is a wonderful illustration of how determination, cooperation, expertise and need all come together to create opportunities for people of differing abilities!
Thanks Mrs. Z for your passion and for not accepting NO for an answer! We need a few more just like you in the Down syndrome community!
NOTES: The Adaptive Dance Program is a partnership of the TRDance Center, Children’s Hospital of the Kind’s Daughters and the Down Syndrome Association of Hampton Roads.
The pictures are Jack H., Mrs. Zaletski and me at Memphis Women’s Magazine’s 50 Women Who Make a Difference Awards. I was one of the honoreees in 2006 and Mr. and Mrs. Z came as guests. Jack H. is an adult with Down syndrome who was serving on the DSAM board. Second picture is DSAM Zoo Day. It pictures my friend Wesley B. with his friends Mr. and Mrs. Z. They came out to do registration – of course.