Wayne Larrivey wants children to believe there are no limits to what they can do - not even when they have disabilities.
Larrivey and Debbie Meyer are founders of "The Sky is the Limit," a year-round community arts theater in Dundalk, sponsored by the therapeutic recreation department of Baltimore County Recreation and Parks Department.
The program, in its 10th year, pairs disabled children with non-disabled children in theatrical productions.
Before 1990, Meyer worked with mentally disabled adults in drama, but she also wanted to do something for young people.
She asked Larrivey, a second-grade teacher at John Ruhrah Elementary School in Baltimore, to help the children act together in plays, but Larrivey was hesitant at first.
"I had an initial fear [of] helping disabled kids, but this program has opened up my eyes," Larrivey said.
His experience 10 years ago led him to stay on as a director for the theater and to earn a master's degree in special education at Coppin State College.
All staff members of the theater go through a weeklong training session to prepare for working with the students. They review all of the childrens' applications and learn about their personalities and disabilities. They also receive training on how to handle problems that might arise.
This summer, the program includes 37 children from throughout Baltimore County. They are rehearsing for a performance Friday of the musical "45 Minutes From Broadway."
Rehearsal can be somewhat difficult because the children learn choreography, music and lines at different speeds, but that doesn't take away from the social experiences the theater teaches.
"I've learned a lot about kids with different disabilities," says five-year participant Jeremiah Smith, 12. "When I first came here, it was kind of weird, but now I treat them all like they're just like us."
All of the children rotate through dance, drama, music and theater craft to prepare for the theatrical production. They also rehearse dance numbers for showcases within the group.
"Working with the kids is a healthy challenge," said Meredith Exler, the dance instructor. "It always surprises me. Where I think that there would be a problem, the children rise to the occasion. I make them push their limits."
Trina Tracey, a counselor at the theater for four years, understands firsthand how important that growth is. She is the mother of a nonverbal child, now 21, who participated in the theater in the past.
"Doing these plays boosts their self-esteem and makes them feel important," she said. "When that spotlight hit my daughter and she knew exactly what to do, I wished I had a camera."
The excitement of a parent is nothing compared with that of the actors and actresses on stage.
"The kids are really excited," said Jim Krauss, the music instructor at the theater. "They want to do their best." For the children, the production means accepting nothing less than the best and working hard to succeed, without complaint.
"It takes a lot of effort," said Jeremiah. "But if you do something like this, you become a better person."
The Sky is the Limit Community Theater Group will perform "45 Minutes From Broadway" on Friday, at The Sky is the Limit Theater, 7701 Wise Avenue in Dundalk. The tickets are $2, and the production is open to the public. For more information, call Wayne Larrivey at 410-284-5636.