By Mike Beitz
This story was originally printed on stratfordbeaconherald.com, June 12, 2016
Who is my neighbour?
Hundreds of young people from around the globe were asked that rhetorical question at a Spirit of Inclusion event in Stratford Sunday.
Sitting together in the Festival Theatre, the answer was obvious.
There were Canadians sitting with Germans. Indonesians beside Americans. Russians, Paraguayans, Australians, Czechs and representatives from several other nations under the same roof for the inspiring World Festival of Children’s Theatre event.
“In spite of our diversity, the people that inhabit the world of theatre speak a language that everyone can share and appreciate,” said emcee Suzie Higgins. “Drama, dance and music are gifts given to us that transcend all borders, all cultures and languages.”
Some of those gifts were shared Sunday on the Festival stage.
Perhaps the most unique was given by Kathy Kettler and Kendra Tagoona, who came from Ottawa to demonstrate traditional Inuit throat singing.
The crowd was clearly mesmerized by the guttural but melodic art form, typically sung as a friendly competition between two women in which the winner is the one who outlasts her opponent.
It usually ends in laughter, as it did Sunday for both the performers and the audience.
Diversity and inclusiveness was a theme that ran throughout the morning program.
Toronto youth worker Francis Atta, who moved to Canada from Ghana when he was six, delivered a motivational message that touched on the hardships he faced and the challenges he overcame growing up in the Jane and Finch area.
A failing student in high school, with the wrong friends, he eventually turned his life around, enrolled in college, and graduated at the top of his class. “I worked hard, because I was inspired and I believed in myself,” said Atta. “I believed in myself when nobody else did.”
He encouraged the young people in the audience to believe in themselves and to support others around them, regardless of their backgrounds.
“The colour of your skin does not matter – black, white, purple – it doesn’t matter. What matters is how you make people feel,” he said. “At the end of the day, that’s what they remember about you.”
That idea was reinforced in a powerful and moving piece of drama from Woodstock’s Artistic Movement dancers and K2K Productions.
Narrated by Stratford’s Callum Hutchinson, the original work inspired by the Good Samaritan story focused on the importance of friendship, kindness and compassion, and the idea that “a neighbour is not just someone who passes you on the street.”
Sunday’s Spirit of Inclusion event, which included a song from the Stratford Festival’s production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, also featured an inspirational message from Kingston marathon swimmer Jenna Lambert, the first female with a physical disability to swim across Lake Ontario.
She did that at age 15, with cerebral palsy, in 32 hours and 18 minutes.
Lambert described how she overcame her initial self-doubt to pursue competitive swimming, and eventually develop an “audacious” goal.
“I learned not only to believe in the impossible, but to strive for it,” she told the crowd.
The uninterrupted 36-kilometre swim across Lake Ontario, using only her arms, was completed in July 2006 with the help and encouragement of family, friends, crew members, teammates and community.
“With faith, determination and the support of hundreds and thousands of my neighbours across Canada, my big, hairy audacious goal became a reality,” said Lambert. She encouraged others to dream big too.
“Don’t let anyone discourage you or get in the way of your success,” she said. “If people tell you it’s impossible, prove them wrong. “If we all live in a world where loving each other, and accepting each other, and supporting our differences comes first, then we will all be in the best possible position to set and achieve big, hairy audacious goals.”
The program ended with a performance by London’s St. Mary School Choir of the World Festival of Children’s Theatre theme song, The World is Our Stage.