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Michelle Tessier, Deseret News
Holly Welch cheers at the end of a performance of the musical The Little Mermaid at CenterPoint Legacy Theatre, Saturday, June 28, 2014. The performance was put on by the Friend to Friend program, which gives children and adults with special needs a chance to attend a weekly theater class free of charge.
This is one of the choicest things to ever happen in my life. I'd like to thank you for who you are and your understanding of what's important in life… You have deepened my understanding of charity. —Shelley Davies

CENTERVILLE — If one word could capture the feeling in Centerville's CenterPoint Legacy Theatre Saturday afternoon it was this: Joy.

Karen Nelson embodied it each time she went on stage as Scuttle in the theater's Friend to Friend production of The Little Mermaid. After she took her final bows, she threw her feathered baseball cap into the audience with flourish.

"It just gives me so much joy to see her happy," Nelson's mother, Ronda, said. "It really does bring tears to my eyes."

The Friend to Friend program is a free class available to those with special needs interested in theater. It was started five years ago when Shelley Davies' then-teenage son urged her to help him start the class.

Davies did that and more, carrying on after her son's graduation with the help of others, and meeting once a week with the casts to put on two shows a year. The cast of The Little Mermaid had been practicing since January.

"This is one of the choicest things to ever happen in my life," Davies said as she announced the start of the "seaperb" production. "I'd like to thank you for who you are and your understanding of what's important in life… You have deepened my understanding of charity."

She became emotional more than once when she explained why she continues the program and what it means to her, the cast, their families and the community.

"It gives these kids a chance to perform and shine that don't get that chance," Davies said. "To give them that opportunity — it integrates them. It brings them on the same level … and shows the community that everyone has talents to celebrate."

Geri Graybill of Centerville came to support her daughter, Rachel, who played Flounder, and who loves to dance.

"I love seeing the kids come out of their shells and express themselves," she said. "Those smiles… it's from the heart. It's make believe, but it's so real."

Rachel shyly said she didn't know what her favorite part of her role or the production was, then said it was probably her solo.

"I just think it helps them express their creativity in a way that's just great," her grandmother, Shirley Beeton, said.

Saturday's was a full production complete with a creative, whimsical set and detailed costumes. While there was a track of pre-recorded songs and lines, some cast members sometimes spoke over the track or improvised with their own flair.

Kyle Naylor, who goes to church with Karen Nelson, said her time on stage was the highlight of the show for him. But the production in its entirety had him smiling.

"It was the finest way to spend an afternoon," he said.

Katie Peterson said those in attendance could learn from those in the show.

"I was just thinking about how much joy they have and if we could all get so much joy out of little things," she said.

Ronda Nelson said Karen was enthusiastic about her role as Scuttle — "Because I told her the Scuttle is loyal and comical and it fit her personality," Ronda Nelson explained — and was excited for Saturday's performance as she loves to participate in the shows.

"It gives them a lot of joy," she said. "They learn so much."

She had high words of praise for Davies, who stood just below the stage and enthusiastically helped the cast with its placement, motion and lines, for the love with which she teaches the students. Davies said it's all worth it when you see the happiness and pride on the face of the participants.

"It makes them feel important and valued, because they are remarkable people… it's just such a joy," she said. "Besides being a mom and grandma, this is my next greatest joy and I have loved it."

Davies, who also serves as the director of development at CenterPoint, said there are classes available to those with special needs from 5 years old to 14 and then those 15 years old and up. Classes for the Christmas "variety show" in December will start in September and Davies said it's open to anyone who is interested.

Eventually, she said she would like to help those interested to establish similar programs elsewhere in the state. Meantime, Friend to Friend isn't going anywhere.

"We will do it forever," she said. "Every week it's like a trip to heaven."

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