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Girl with cerebral palsy gets shot at Joffrey ‘Nutcracker’

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Naheda Jablonski helps her daughter, Sophia, with her ballet shoes before taking the floor with Austin Smith for a rehearsal of the upcoming Joffrey Ballet production of "The Nutcracker." | Mary Beth Nolan~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 15, 2011 3:48PM

Sophia Jablonski wants to do all of the things other children her age do, even though her body doesn’t always let her.

But the 11-year-old from Orland Park has a chance to do something other young girls can only dream about — take part in the Joffrey Ballet’s annual holiday production of “The Nutcracker.” Born prematurely, the sixth-grader at Central Middle School in Tinley Park has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around. Some kids will give her a quizzical look; others ask why she’s in a wheelchair.

“I don’t mind it,” she says of the looks and questions. “I say ‘I was born with a disability called CP, and maybe I can’t do some of the things you do, but maybe I can if I work hard enough.’ ”

Watching her younger sister, 9-year-old Stephanie, going through her ballet moves during dance classes at The Dance Studio Ltd. in Homer Glen, Sophia ached at the chance to dance.

“I would always ask ‘When do I get to dance?’ ” she said.

“It was almost like she (Sophia) was dancing through her (sister),” the girls’ mom, Naheda Jablonski, said. “She would tell Stephanie to move this way or that way.”

Because of Sophia, four years ago Dance Studio started a ballet class for kids with special needs. Her connection to Joffrey and “The Nutcracker” came about because of Citlali Lopez-Ortiz, a dance rehabilitation research scientist at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

Lopez-Ortiz developed a ballet program for children with cerebral palsy to improve posture and motor control, in which Sophia took part.

“Classical ballet provides great therapeutic value for the kids,” she said.

Herself a certified classical ballet instructor, Lopez-Ortiz said Sophia “did things in dance she couldn’t do before” because of her CP. At a recital, Sophia was up and out of her wheelchair gripping a handrail — the ballet barre — and performing demi-plies — a slight bending outward at the knees — and grand plies, Lopez-Ortiz said.

“It’s remarkable how well she did because she is normally in a wheelchair,” Lopez-Ortiz said.

Longstanding Nutcracker tradition

For the past two years, the Joffrey has turned to Lopez-Ortiz for help in what’s become a longstanding Nutcracker tradition.

It started several years ago, prior to company founder Robert Joffrey’s death in 1988, when a dancer showed up in a wheelchair to audition for “Nutcracker.”

“He (Joffrey) decided to make a special role for that dancer,” Katie Garwood, rehearsal director for the Nutcracker’s children’s cast, said.

Since then there has been a spot in the production for children with special needs. Sophia and another girl with CP who were part of Lopez-Ortiz’s ballet program were selected for this year’s production.

“It’s pretty easy to integrate them into the cast,” Garwood said of the two girls. “They are such a joy to have. They are always so positive.”

In all, there are 118 children in the cast, with half taking part in each performance, Garwood said.

For the party scene she’s in, Sophia said she’ll be using what she refers to as an “old-time wheelchair.” Unlike her sleek, joystick-operated battery-powered chair, it’s a manually operated one.

Fresh from a recent dance recital where she portrayed a witch in “Hansel and Gretel,” Sophia said she is ready for the big leagues with the Joffrey and isn’t worried about a case of stage fright.

“I love to be on stage and I love to be seen and cheered on,” she said. “I am not nervous or scared at all to do anything.”

‘I do not give up’

Sophia weighed just 1 pound, 5 ounces when she was born and was Naheda’s only surviving triplet. A son was stillborn and another girl lived just a dozen days. Sophia spent four months at Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn before she could come home.

“They said she had CP, but that it would be OK with therapy,” Naheda said.

She has physical therapy in Chicago and also goes to the Center for Independence through Conductive Education in Countryside, where she’s learning the basics of everyday living.

She loves reading chapter books and music, singing Justin Bieber tunes while sister Stephanie bangs out the rhythm on a drum set. At the school where her sister takes karate lessons, Sophia is pushing the instructor to offer classes for kids like her.

For a handwriting assignment at the Center for Independence, Sophia wrote that she wants to be able “to do stuff on my own like my sister, such as ice skating and roller skating.”

Most of all, she wrote, her “real dream is to walk independently.”

She’s determined to see that dream realized one day.

“I do not give up, I keep trying.”

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