- Associated Press - Friday, January 1, 2016

SUFFOLK, Va. (AP) - Dressed in a dark green shirt, Maya Cross fit right in as she took the stage for Nansemond River High’s holiday choral concert.

About 40 fellow teens clad in Christmas colors accompanied her. Standing on the left edge of a riser, Maya smiled as the group belted out carols.

But Maya isn’t an ordinary choral student. She can hear, but she speaks only a handful of words.

She communicates largely through sign language. She loves music, and those who know her say she has rhythm. They also say her involvement makes the chorus better.

“It’s an education, not just for her,” said choral Director Joleen Neighbours.

Maya was born with a rare chromosome disorder, 8p inverted duplication syndrome. Doctors said she might never walk or talk, said her mother, Rainey Dail.

Now 17 and a junior at Nansemond River, Maya walks without trouble. She can say a few words, like “mama.”

And ever since she was little, she has always loved music. When she heard the choir at church, she became so emotional that tears streamed from her eyes.

“Everyone has something that speaks to them,” Dail said. “Music is it for her.”

When Maya entered Nansemond River as a freshman, her family sought out Neighbours, who also handles the school’s theater department. She had a cousin born with spina bifida, a condition that affects the spine, and for years has welcomed students who don’t fit the typical fine arts mold.

Maya’s fellow students quickly recognized her passion for music. When it was time to leave the stage or auditorium, she would cry.

“She brightens up my day,” junior Katie Seeley said.

Students learned from Maya’s inclusion in the group. Senior Emily Hunter offered to help her around school and quickly decided she wants a career working with special needs patients. She said she was inspired by Maya’s joy, which can shine through while playing the piano, clapping in rhythm while others sing and jingling the bells during “Jingle Bells.”

“It’s rewarding when you see how excited she gets,” Hunter said.

The group’s welcoming spirit has greatly helped Maya, who comprehends at a high level, Dail said. She is friendly, wanting to bring out the good in everyone she meets, and her feelings are hurt when she doesn’t get a response from a wave. That never happens with her musical friends.

Family members say Maya comes out of her shell when she is around the music program, and it has built her confidence. Two words she signs often are “more” and “music.”

At the choral concert Dec. 16, sophomore Teaghan Drohan noticed an unsure look on Maya’s face. Teaghan knows a bit of sign language and signed “good” to make her more comfortable.

Then, as the concert came to a close, Maya flowed into the audience with the rest of the group to soak up the holiday spirit.

“It’s so amazing how these kids are and how they accept her,” Dail said.

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Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, https://pilotonline.com

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