- Associated Press - Saturday, July 29, 2017

BEAVER, W.Va. (AP) - Meet Samantha Stalnaker - a 14-year-old cheerleader, makeup enthusiast and actress.

She’s been interested in theatre since she was a youngster, helping her cousin act out plays and performances throughout the holidays.

Her mom, Melissa, decided to help her channel her interests by signing her up for acting classes at the Historic Fayette Theatre and at Theatre West Virginia.

During the TWV acting classes, her coaches encouraged her to audition for a role in one of the outdoor dramas at Cliffside Amphitheater.

“At first I thought it was going to be really scary, but I went in there and they started talking to me and I calmed down,” Samantha shared.

“I sang ‘I’ll Be There For You’ by Bon Jovi and I performed a monologue from the movie Tangled.”

A couple months after her audition, she got an email from Theatre West Virginia. She screamed as her parents rushed into the room. She’d landed a part in “The Jungle Book Kids.”

“I’m playing Thistle,” she said. “It’s a jungle plant. I dance and have a few speaking parts.”

Landing a role is no small feat for a young actress, especially one with limited mobility.

Samantha was born with spina bifida, a birth defect in which the bones of the spine don’t form properly around part of the spinal cord. The condition left her with limited use of her legs, causing her to rely either on a walker or a wheelchair to get around.

“I always try to tell myself it could be worse,” Samantha shared. “I try to make myself happy.”

Acting is certainly one way she achieves that goal. She’s all smiles as she sings and dances on stage, moving her decorated wheelchair to and fro.

Audience members watching the bright, determined young woman perform on stage would never know the hardships she’s faced since birth - dozens of surgeries, including procedures to remove fluid from her brain, a surgery in which her leg had to be broken and straightened, and a recent intestinal surgery.

“She’s doing really well now,” said her dad, Sam. “She’s a trooper. A lot of people don’t realize the struggle she’s been through. She puts a smile on her face and keeps going. She’s determined. She’s going to let people know she can do whatever it is. She finds a way to do it.”

The Stalnaker family, of Mount Nebo in Nicholas County, is spending two weeks at a nearby campground to accommodate Samantha’s nine Jungle Book performances, with remaining show dates July 26-30.

Both Melissa and Sam said the theatre has been welcoming of their daughter - in making sure everything is wheelchair accessible and in welcoming her as one of their own.

Samantha said of her fellow cast members and directors, “They’re like family now.”

“I told my mom I feel like I don’t even have a disability when I’m on stage,” she added. “It just all goes away, like I’m a normal person. I love being on stage.”

To purchase tickets or learn more about Theatre West Virginia, call 304-256-6800 or visit theatrewestvirginia.org.

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Information from: The Register-Herald, https://www.register-herald.com

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