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Riley Weinstein dances to a beat of her own

Fundraiser to be held Saturday to benefit dance classes for special needs

Posted: May 2, 2009 7:46 p.m.
Updated: May 3, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Riley Weinstein, second from right, with students at School of Performing Arts.

 
Overcoming obstacles is not something Riley Weinstein, 16, will walk through. Instead, she dances over them. Weinstein, a Junior at Canyon High School, suffered a traumatic, life-altering brain injury at the age of 2 1/2, when a large tumor was removed from the base of her brain, leaving her paralyzed.

The tumor on Weinstein’s brain was discovered after she had suffered a stroke, and over the following seven months of her life, Weinstein underwent 15 neurosurgeries in order to remove the entire mass, which left her with severe brain trauma and an inability to perform even the slightest of movements.

“Learning is doing,” said Riley’s father, Jeffrey Weinstein, who worked with Riley’s mother, Teri on extensive rehabilitation techniques with Riley every day throughout the next few years of the toddler’s life. Practice paid off as she achieved mobility once again.

It wasn’t long before Weinstein began to want to dance before she could walk.

“I just remember she was learning to crawl,” said Jeffrey Weinstein, of remembering his daughter’s attempts to cruise the carpet at age 4.

“She was crawling and then stopped to watch a commercial on TV about the Nutcracker ballet. The second she saw those dancers, she was fixated.”

According to Jeffrey Weinstein, it was clear that this was something his daughter wanted.

“I always felt that I could do anything if I wanted it enough,” Weinstein said of following her dreams. “I just knew I had to believe in myself.”

Through a combination of Weinstein’s own motivation and her parent’s reinforcement that she could do anything she puts her mind to,

Weinstein grew to know that being “disabled” is just a frame of mind.

“I want people to know that we are all the same,” Weinstein said. “Stereotyping someone for what you think they can or cannot do is just wrong. Let the person show you instead.”

Weinstein attributes part of her inspiration to “Yes I Can,” a program established in 1981 to acknowledge achievements of children and youth with disabilities. Weinstein attended the program at Canyon High School.

“‘Yes I Can’ is a big inspiration to me because it is what I already believe,” she said.

Through Weinstein’s development, she continued to show everyone that she couldn’t be kept down now that she had gotten up.

At age 6, Weinstein’s family fought to have their daughter enrolled as a “fully-included” student in a regular classroom setting and she was enrolled in school in Valencia, walking with the assistance of a full-time one-on-one aid. By 7, she was ready for dance classes and she began to learn ballet. After watching her twin sister, Taylor, take horseback riding lesson, Weinstein realized she could do that, too.

“My parents have always let me do anything that other kids my age can do. They let me try things,” Weinstein said of her upbringing with twin sister, Taylor, 16, and younger brother, Max, both without special needs.

At age 8, Riley Weinstein began equestrian therapy at Carousel Ranch, the nonprofit organization specializing in horseback therapy for children and adults with mental and physical disabilities. She immediately took a liking to the program, which offers horseback riding, horsemanship skills and helpful concepts of physical therapy to improve strength, balance and self-esteem.

“I love the philosophies of Carousel Ranch,” Weinstein said. She has spent time riding and volunteering every weekend at the ranch for the past eight years. “They treat everybody equally and don’t put restrictions on people. Their idea is if somebody thinks they can do it — let them try.”

Weinstein now walks independently and without the assistance of an aid of any kind. She is now on a mission to mix her love for dance with her love for independence.

“One of my big goals is to help those with disabilities feel like they can be independent,” Weinstein said. “I love that Carousel Ranch believes those with disabilities can learn on regular levels, and gives people a chance to learn equally.”

It was then that her own idea was sparked.

“I thought about making a great dance class,” Weinstein said. “What if I could create a class for kids with special needs, but teach them that they can dance like anyone else? I thought that would be so cool.”

Her father helped her start her dance class at Vibe Studio on Lyons Avenue in 2007, where she gathered a group of children with special needs and instructed them on dance moves that regular, basic dance classes would cover, following along with Carousel Ranch’s spirit of equality. In 2008, she was offered her own studio space at Santa Clarita School Of Performing Arts, owned by Mike Josten.

The school, located on Lyons Avenue in Newhall, offers acting, modeling and recording classes to provide a well-rounded theatrical education to their students. Now, she teaches local children with disabilities at the studio twice a week.

“I tell each and every one of my students, ‘We can do anything. Let’s do it together. Let’s celebrate that we all have special needs but can achieve what we want to,’” she said.

For Weinstein, the dance class was just the beginning. In collaboration with family friend, Lynn Walker, the office manager and event coordinator at the School of Performing Arts Weinstein will host “Getting The Word Out,” a fundraiser to support special needs classes at the school. Funds will benefit families with special needs children who cannot afford the per-class fee of $50.

“I know this kind of activity is good for the kids. It not only makes them feel good about themselves, but helps them feel better about their abilities in life,” she said. “I want to help them feel like they are capable of so many things.”

“I have never been more inspired by an individual in my entire life,” Walker said of Weinstein’s accomplishments.
Weinstein hopes the fundraiser will inspire audience members to give those with special needs the same chance as anyone else, to show the world what they’ve got.

The evening will be sponsored by Carousel Ranch and The Santa Clarita School Of Performing Arts and will feature a 30-minute benefit concert from Los Angeles based rock/hip-hop/pop band, Malbec. The evening’s entertainment will also include exclusive performances by local performing artists, as well as choreographed performances done by models and actors from Performing Arts. All proceeds made from the evening, including proceeds made from Malbec’s T-shirt and CD sales during the event will benefit Weinstein’s class.

As an extra treat for fans of television’s “The Bachelor,” Jerry Ferris, the second “Bachelor” in the series, will act as Master of Ceremonies throughout the event.

“She really is her own little steam engine,” said Denise Tomey, Carousel Ranch executive director. Tomey has watched Weinstein grow up during her visits and volunteerism at the ranch. “She has it all inside of her and her drive to help others just keeps getting stronger. She is a very inspiring young woman and we are so proud of her.”

Spaces are now available for enrollment to Weinstein’s special needs dance classes, held from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays at the School for Performing Arts.

“Getting The Word Out” will be held 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the William S. Hart High School auditorium. Tickets will be sold for $15 and are available at the door or through reservations. To reserve tickets e-mail: rileygtwo@gmail.com. Will call will be open for sales on the day of the event. To find out more about Riley’s dance class at SCSOPA, call (661) 222-7910 or visit www.scsopa.com. For information on Carousel Ranch visit www.carouselranch.org.

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