Assignment draws actor to school

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 goodwill 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 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.

"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."

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.

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