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Mid-State group helps artists with handicaps say "I can."


MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (SHAW)  --  Believing in yourself comes so much easier for some than for others. A mid-state group, part of a larger, internationally recognized organization, is becoming increasingly well-known for helping those who might be tempted to say “I can’t,” say “I can."

Angela Alton is a talented songwriter and pianist who happens to be blind.

Alton is a part of VSA Tennessee an international non-profit organization dedicated to helping young people with disabilities participate and succeed in the arts.

After entering and winning the organization’s young soloist competition four times, Alton feels thankful towards VSA Tennessee.

“Because of VSA I’ve gotten opportunities to play at places I never… dreamed I’d be playing at,” Alton said. “One of which was the Ryman Auditorium and another which was Dollywood. So because of them I’ve gotten to play at those places.”

Alton and the other young artist at VSA TN are benefiting from the work of Lori Kissinger the Tennessee affiliate founder and professor at Middle Tennessee State University. Kissinger was asked to help start the Tennessee chapter almost 14 years ago, but first she had to be inspired to do so.  

“I am definitely a champion of the underdog, (and) have always been,” Kissinger said.  “Whenever somebody says someone cannot do something I tend to go the other direction and say I think they can.”

Kissinger’s background as director of an Arts Council in Indiana, and personal experience with music, caught the attention of a VSA affiliate. They asked her to help with a festival for those with disabilities.

“At the time I actually said no because I had never really worked around individuals with disabilities. I was afraid to do the wrong thing. And thorough a little bit of coercion they encouraged me to participate and I did and I love it,” Kissinger said.

Kissinger’s understanding and compassion for those who sometimes need help from others comes from her own challenges as a child.  After surviving Scarlett Fever, the disease that left Helen Keller mute, blind, and deaf, Kissinger grew up hearing from doctors and even her own parents, “You can’t.”

“They thought that - even though I did survive it that - it probably affected my brain and they told my parents at the time ‘Don’t expect much from her.’ An in fact they didn’t think that I probably would not talk and here I teach communications,” Kissinger explains.

Kissinger’s life experiences help her to understand the artists of VSA a little better and can be a motivating factor for the inspiring musicians like Alton who continues to move forward despite her hardships.  

“I’ve never been able to see so I don’t know what it’s like to see, so all my life I’ve been walking around in the dark, so to speak, and having to learn things by using my other senses: my hearing and my feel and my smell and taste. So for me, I don’t let that slow me down,” Alton said.

And, in fact, it does not slow her down.

Alton is taking part in VSA’S 40 days around the world. The internationally known organization will soon be celebrating its 40 anniversary along with the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  With the celebration of these two events happening together VSA affiliates both state-side and overseas are working together to mark the occasion.

“We thought this might be a good opportunity for us to get to know each other better,” Kissinger explained.  “Do something together where a state and an international would exchange something. It could be I do a performance and you do a performance and we send it to each other. It could be actual visits, it could be an art exhibition, it could be just about anything.”

Everything exchanged by the state and internationals will be put on a website which will go live for 40days before the 40th anniversary. Every day will focus on a different program that VSA offers.

Angela Alton’s songs will be recorded at MTSU and exchanged with a VSA affiliate in Ireland. VSA Tennessee will receive something from Ireland in return.

You can keep up with what’s happening with the VSA 40 day project over the next few months by visiting their website vsatn.org.