By Todd Cohen
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In 1973, for her senior project at Myers Park High School in Charlotte, Pat Farmer visited a local mental institution once a week, teaching mentally retarded children how to dance.
Seventeen years later, after retiring in Los Angeles from a career as a professional dancer, Farmer formed a foundation that uses movement as a vehicle to help disabled children step up and take greater control of their lives.
Now, after moving the foundation to Charlotte five years ago, and sending a group of 10 disabled students to perform at the White House last December, Farmer aims to secure more hometown support.
Formed in 1991 as the Pacific Foundation for the Performing Arts, the organization by its seventh year was working with 2,000 disabled children a week in the Los Angeles and Pasadena unified school districts, and at City of Hope, a cancer center in Duarte, a suburb of Los Angeles.
But after the death in 1998 of her husband, Farmer decided to return home.
With 15,000 children in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools diagnosed with disabilities, the foundation has grown rapidly.
It now serves more than 400 children a week, and this fall will offer its free services at three elementary schools, four pre-schools, including the YWCA More at Four program, and three community-outreach sites, including Carolinas Medical Center.
With an annual budget of $380,000, the foundation employs three full-time staff members, three part-time instructors and six part-time consultants.
It also counts on 300 volunteers, including 200 corporate volunteers who visit Allegro sites once a week and 100 older students who serve as “peer buddies” for disabled students.
The foundation could use another 100 corporate volunteers, says Farmer, who also wants to hire a full-time grant-writer and generate more support from local corporations and foundations.
Individual donations account for two-thirds of the foundation’s support, with grants accounting for the remainder, although groups outside Charlotte provide most of the grants, Farmer says.
Local support is critical for growth at the foundation, which Farmer says has tripled the number of children it has served each of the past five years and aims to serve 1,200 students a week within three years.
The foundation also wants to expand its program at Carolinas Medical Center, aiming within five years to serve children receiving in-patient and out-patient services at the new Levine Children’s Hospital scheduled to open in 2007.
The visit to the White House followed a personal request to President Bush when he was in Charlotte last April by Olivia Navarro, who was nine at the time and has used a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy since age three.
“So often, kids with disabilities are invisible,” says Ruby Navarro, Olivia’s mother and the foundation’s program director. “They’re misunderstood. They’re segregated.”
But through movement and their peer buddies, Ruby Navarro says, Olivia and other Allegro students have taken big strides in improving their dexterity, social skills, attention span, ability to focus, academic performance, self-confidence and self-esteem.
“We look at the whole child,” she says. “These kids can be functional members of society if given the opportunities.”
Photo: Pat Farmer, founder and executive director, works with Allegro Foundation student Olivia Navarro. Each week, Allegro serves over 400 children with disabilities in the Charlotte area.