Sister act

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Sisters Wynn and Parker Burrus. Photograph by Nick Pironio.

Parker and Wynn Burrus organize dances and help break down barriers in the process

by Settle Monroe

Carson Vargas is in his second year at Broughton High School. His favorite subject is English. His powerful backhand is a mighty weapon for Broughton’s varsity men’s tennis team. He loves dancing to hip-hop and prefers Lil Wayne to Kanye. He’s got a killer smile and a quick wit. Although Carson faces the challenges of autism, he thrives with the support of his special education teacher and his peers.

In 2012, sisters Wynn and Parker Burrus were students at Broughton High School when they noticed a wide divide between students with special needs and the rest of the student body. They saw that students like Carson were often isolated and misunderstood – and the sisters knew something needed to change.

When efforts to bring the students with special needs into the fold through service projects and community outreach seemed to merely inch the gap closer, Parker, then a 16-year-old junior, had an idea. Broughton needed a dance that would not only include but also celebrate these invaluable students.

The Burrus sisters already knew how to put on a production. They’d been doing it since they were little girls, creating summer camps for neighborhood children and performing homegrown theatrical performances for their family. But what started out as play and imagination had developed into confidence and leadership. These children, who were never afraid to step out in front of others, were now young women who were primed to break down boundaries.

Parker quickly got to work. She rallied the support of the Broughton principal, a small group of volunteers, and her sister, at that point a 14-year-old freshman. Soon, the idea had become a family, school, and community project. Wynn and Parker’s mother scoured thrift stores for formal dresses. A local rental company came to the school to fit the boys for tuxedos. A DJ was enlisted, snowflake decorations were hung, and pizza was ordered. Broughton’s first Winterfest was even complete with a red carpet entrance, lined with cheering student volunteers.

“There was so much excitement that year,” Wynn recalls of the first dance. “It was really cool to watch everything come together. The most amazing part was seeing the smiles on the students’ faces.” Those smiles led the sisters to dream bigger. In planning the next Winterfest, the two invited students from other high schools to attend. It grew quickly. Three years later in December 2015, with Wynn a senior at Broughton and Parker a sophomore at Washington and Lee University, Winterfest hosted 63 students with special needs from Broughton, Athens Drive, and Leesville Road High Schools. Over 130 student volunteers came out to support the dance and celebrate the dancers.

Athens Drive student P.J. Nelson, left, dances with Broughton High volunteer Isabelle Babson, right, during the second annual Broughton Winter Fest. Twenty-nine students with intellectual disabilities from Broughton and Athens Drive High Schools had the opportunity to have their photos made, dance with one another and eat pizza on Thursday, December 11, 2014.

Athens Drive student P.J. Nelson, left, dances with Broughton High volunteer Isabelle Babson, right, during the second annual Broughton Winterfest December 2014. Photograph by Corey Lowenstein, The News & Observer.

While the students with special needs certainly leave the dances with wide smiles and sweat-drenched hair, the dances’ greatest gifts, the sisters say, reach far beyond the Broughton gymnasium. Carson Vargas and his classmates are not the only ones who receive these gifts. Austin Bell, a senior at Broughton, has been a student volunteer for Winterfest and the recently added dance, Spring Fling. “The dances open people’s eyes,” he says. “They allow people to get to know the students with special needs and build relationships with them. I have learned that these kids are just like everyone else. They love to dance and laugh and get to know you.”

Parker Burrus agrees that the dances have affected the entire high school community. “I can honestly say that I have never seen Wake County come together like it does for the dances. When you look back as a spectator, you can truly admire the diversity … (as well as the) connection between all of the students.”

This year, with Wynn graduating from Broughton and headed to UNC-Chapel Hill as a Morehead-Cain Scholar, the sisters are keenly aware that plans must be in place to ensure that the show goes on in their absence. So Wynn has partnered with local businesses such as Flywheel Sports to hold fundraisers for the dances, and has trained a small group of freshmen and sophomores who are equipped to carry the baton.

She says she’s optimistic that the dances will expand to reach more students in the future, and is already planning to start dances for students with special needs at high schools in Chapel Hill. “The dances have shown me the impact that a small group of people can have,” she says. “Actually experiencing this has made me realize that we can all do something for good.”