By Anne K. Kaler
Pearl S. Buck and her daughter Carol must be smiling down from heaven these days with the recent publication of Stories from the Hearts of Harmony, which is subtitled as the “uplifting stories of harmony, hope and happiness from families of adults with developmental disabilities.”
Why, you ask?
Pearl’s only biological child, Grace Carol Buck, was a victim of a birth defect of a buildup of amino acid called phenylketonuria or PKU which prevent normal physical development. Pearl’s book on her struggles recognizing and accepting Carol’s delayed development – The Child Who Never Grew – was a clarion call to the world of the dangers of PKU. (Babies born today are routinely tested at birth for PKU which can now be treated if caught early enough.)
The book encouraged the Kennedy family and others to begin to see that their developmentally challenged children were still beloved children who could meet and succeed in other challenges in life. In turn, this led Eunice Shriver Kennedy to begin the Special Olympics. And so the dam broke, releasing a flood of activities for those forgotten children who grew up into functioning and fun-loving adults.
Harmony Theater was founded on the belief that “the performing arts activities can be an avenue for social interaction and self-expression” for such adults. Starting in 1994, Harmony evolved from an educational outreach activity for developmentally delayed adults at Gwynedd Mercy College/University into a private, non-profit corporation as a performing arts collaborative, now housed at the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Lower Gwynedd, PA. These stories tell of some of the personal stories of those involved.
The actors range in age from early twenties through the sixties. They produce two shows a year – a Fall Vocal Concert and a Spring Musical Show, based on a chance to sing, dance, and act. Each Saturday morning, from September to June, the actors and directors assemble to rehearse at Messiah church. For some of the actors, this social interaction becomes the highlight of their weeks, a chance to mingle with old friends and to make new ones. The directors come from all walks of life and give their talent unstintingly to the actors. Many have been with Harmony since it first began.
But it is the stories that make this book a must read. Some are told from the parent’s perspective, some from the actor’s view point, and one from a younger brother. Who can resist a title such as “Sign Me Up, Mom”, “I Love My Life” or “Slow Down and Glook”? Each story is accompanied by pictures of the actors, several pictures in some cases. What impressed me was the natural way in which the actors smiled in joy in their accomplishments or concentrated with a serious face on what each was doing. What human can’t relate to a smile or an intently concerned face?
What is remarkable about such a book is not that it told stories of these adult actors so that they might have physical memories of their accomplishments. No, what is remarkable is that the rest of us find it remarkable at all. After all, these people are not just “those” people – they are just people, just as you and I are. They laugh, they cry, they pout, they work, they fail, they achieve, they love, so why should we see them as special or different or “challenged”? Aren’t all of us challenged in different ways?
When all is said and done, this is a happy book. The actors who have received their free copies (thanks to some generous patrons) were laughing and smiling as they flipped through the brightly colored books at a recent rehearsal. Its colorful cover, with its drama curtains open around the title of the book, seems to beckon all to read further. The bright colors, framed portraits, and larger than usual print make page-turning easy, thanks to the expert layout of PSBVA volunteer Linda Donaldson’s creative talent.
Perhaps the most revealing stories are those of those few who take the time to care enough to encourage and support the actors. Read the essays by HTI board member Cindy, the director Jenny Bee, even Janice Buck Walsh’s comments on her sister Carol. Think back on what Pearl S. Buck herself did to support her daughter for all those years, day after day, story after story, and you will see why this book means more to our world than just a tribute to a few.
Stories from the Hearts of Harmony, edited and compiled by Cynthia L. Louden, was published by the Pearl S. Buck Writing Center Press, and is now available for $12.99 in our PSBI Gift Shop or online from Amazon.