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Nonprofit Seeks to Use Dance to Raise Autism Awareness in Lowell

Courtesy photo
Brittany Palaski is a dance instructor and co-founder of Speaking Through Dance, a nonprofit planning to hold its first major benefit, the 2013 Spring Festival, at the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center.

Lowell Sun
By Marie Donovan

LOWELL-- When Sylvia Szafran-Lally takes dance classes at The Academy of Performing Arts New England, she's a different person. 

"When she's in class, she's verbal, she's calm. When she's not in the studio, she's really quiet; she never really talks to me," said Brittany Palaski, an APA instructor who works with the 6-year-old. 

If taking dance classes can be such a positive influence on Sylvia, Palaski surmised other children like her with autism could also benefit tremendously from the experience. 

That's why Palaski and her boyfriend, Mike Farago, decided to cofound a nonprofit organization called Speaking Through Dance. The charity, which they started in September, was planning to host its first major benefit, the 2013 Spring Festival yesterday at the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center. 

According to the charity's most recent Facebook post, the festival will be rescheduled due to the bombings at the Boston Marathon. No other scheduling information was given. 

Palaski, a UML sophomore clinical-science major and the nonprofit's director of operations, along with Farago, 24, a 2011 Suffolk University graduate and small-business consultant who is the finance director, have enlisted Sylvia's mother, Lauren Szafran, to serve as the director of programs and networking. 

The three are using office space at the Westford dental lab owned by Farago's family and hope to raise up to $5,000 at the UML event and to continue to host semiregular dance and movement-based events to raise money for children and families in the local region touched by autism.

"I'm hoping this event will allow us to reach out in the future," Farago said. 

The Spring Festival starts off with a meet-and-greet with Christi and Chloe from the hit Lifetime dance competition-based reality show Dance Moms, who are donating a portion of the proceeds from ticket sales to Speaking Through Dance. 

It also features a jazz class with Celtics dancers and a range of other dance classes and activities for kids of all ages, in addition to raffles for the public with various gift baskets and gift certificates. 

Palaski, who hopes to eventually attend medical school, said her mission is to funnel some proceeds to other autism-related causes and to raise enough funds so she can open a local center for children on the autism spectrum that will be used to provide day-to-day services for children and their families. The center would provide a safe environment for children and their families to visit for fun, education and support. 

Sylvia also has older siblings that dance at the studio, but "teaching her and teaching the other students is very different. Eventually our goal is to open a place where kids can go so they can take specific classes for kids with autism. 

"We want our facility to include a studio space where dance and gymnastics classes can be held, rooms with sensory-friendly play space, technology rooms and a family lounge where parents can enjoy some down time. It is also our hope that the center will have a professional staff that can provide therapy and support for all members of the family," Palaski said. 

The Chelmsford native has a long history with dance. She started taking creative-movement classes when she was 3 and was already a competitive dancer by 6. 

"We did regular competitions throughout the year and in the summer, we usually attended nationals. I've competed as far away as Virginia Beach," Palaski said. 

She competed for the same Chelmsford studio, APA, where she now teaches pre-dance and ballet classes for children younger than 7 and jazz and contemporary dance classes for older children, in addition to serving as a choreographer. 

"I was an assistant teacher there throughout high school, and then when I graduated, they took me on as a teacher. My youngest student is 4 and my oldest is 18. This year, I'm also working as a choreographer for the company," which has won regional and national dance-team titles, Palaski said. 

Admission is free, except for the meet and greet with the team from Dance Moms, which costs $40 to $100 and takes place from 9 a.m. to noon. Fees for the Speaking Through Dance event activities, which take place from noon to 5 p.m., range from $1 for the ring and bucket tosses, crafts and nail painting to $5 for dance classes. 

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