Writing assignment draws actor

Biography: A fourth-grader chooses a 1990s TV star with Down syndrome for a class project.

May 19, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

While his classmates at Friendship Valley Elementary School in Westminster researched historical figures and modern heroes for their biography writing assignment, Bryan Barry chose a 1990s television star.

"I chose Chris Burke," said Bryan. "He was born with Down syndrome, just like me."

Bryan, 12, conducted a phone interview that led to a report and a video, copies of which he will give to Burke today when he introduces the actor to his school.

He has rehearsed his brief introduction and has printed it on index cards. He will tell the audience what he has learned about Chris Burke, who raises money for and serves as the good will ambassador for the National Down Syndrome Society.

Burke has written his autobiography, acts in television, sings in a trio and has made several CDs. He now tours the country with two friends in a musical revue, all accomplishments Bryan will mention today. Bryan's research showed him that Burke's first job was operating an elevator, but that he persisted in his search for acting roles.

"He had to try out for a lot of parts," said Bryan, a fourth-grader. "Chris is a good actor and they wrote a part in Life Goes On for him."

Burke, who played Corky Thatcher in the television series, will join with friends Joe and John deMasi today in a musical revue called "Everyone Can Be a Singer With the Band." The trio will perform for the entire school.

Raising awareness

"These programs are critical in terms of raising awareness and bringing about acceptance and inclusion," said Susan Armstrong, director of communication for the National Down Syndrome Society. "Chris is such a role model, and he has a special connection with all kids."

Each year as many as 5,000 children are born in the United States with Down syndrome, a chromosomal disorder. People with Down syndrome are often small in stature and their physical and mental development is slowed, according to the National Down Syndrome Society.

Nancy Barry, Bryan's mother, said Burke's visit will show pupils what people with disabilities can do, and will help dispel fears children might have.

"The more examples children have, the better they will be able to adjust," she said. "This program shows that disabled people are just like everyone else. They just do things differently. They are part of our society and can contribute. The children know Bryan, but they don't know what he will do with his life choice. Chris Burke will give them an actual example of what he can do."

Previous meeting

Bryan has never seen Life Goes On, which ran on ABC from 1989 to 1993, but he and Burke met at a musical production at Westminster High School a few years ago. The two posed for a picture together.

"I remember he was nice," said Bryan.

When Bryan showed the photograph to Marilyn Manger, special education assistant, she figured Burke would make an ideal subject for her pupil's project. She searched the Internet, found a way to contact Burke and set up the phone interview earlier this year. She helped Bryan put together a list of a dozen questions, which Burke previewed before the phone call.

"We put him on the speaker phone," said Manger. "It was really precious to listen to the two of them. They bantered and exchanged jokes. They were like two old friends, and neither was nervous."

Bryan said: "He told me his favorite class was history. Mine is science. I asked, `What is your job?' and he said he is an actor."

Things in common

Bryan discovered Burke's favorite car is a Rolls-Royce, his favorite food is pizza and his favorite color is green. They have the favorite color in common, probably because "he is Irish, just like me," said Bryan, who prefers Chinese food to pizza and has yet to establish a car preference.

"He likes to spend time with his family and to take walks," said Bryan. "He likes to watch movies, dramas and sports."

Project comes together

The interview, background information and Manger's fondness for scrapbooks helped Bryan put his notebook together.

Bryan colored a drawing or made a collage for every page. He pasted images of the New York City skyline on the first page in a tribute to Burke's hometown. He dedicated one page to Burke's family, including stick drawings of his parents and siblings.

"He told me if you believe in yourself and work hard, you can do anything," said Bryan, adding that it was a direct quote from his interview.

Bryan worked hard at writing his sentences and getting them organized for his report, said Manger. He is also working on a book tentatively titled The House that Bryan Built.

Show time

Bryan's report led to today's concert. In her search, Manger found that the singing trio had scheduled a private performance in the area today.

The company agreed to a second show at Friendship Valley Elementary for a $1,500 fee. Carroll County public schools paid $1,000, and the school's PTO contributed the remaining $500.

"It is really important for people to see shows like this," said Nancy Barry. "Bryan loves the limelight and not everyone gets to the Special Olympics."

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