Ben and Amy Wright with their children. (Amy Wright photo)
Ben and Amy Wright with their children. (Amy Wright photo)

Experience on Broadway enriches Baptist couple’s calling to special needs advocacy

Amy and Ben Wright, deacons at First Baptist Church in Wilmington, N.C., are using their performance abilities to advocate for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. 

By Jeff Brumley

For most performers, making it to Broadway would be considered the apex of a career, the end-all, be-all of performing on stage.

But for Amy and Ben Wright, who are deacons at First Baptist Church in Wilmington, N.C., it was just a rehearsal for the truly important and challenging parts God had written for them.

And it’s been in those relatively recent, and often difficult, roles — namely as parents of two children with Down Syndrome — that the couple say they’ve seen God so clearly directing their lives.

Today, their songwriting, acting and singing abilities are used to push for changes in the way the world sees and hears people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

That role wasn’t so clear when their third child (and first boy), Beau, was born with Down Syndrome in 2004.

“There was just an enormous amount of grief — it was like I was grieving the son I thought I was going to have,” Amy Wright said.

‘No burning desire’

The transformation in attitude she and her husband would eventually experience after Beau’s birth began much earlier in their lives.

For Amy, growing up in Pennsylvania, and then North Carolina, included the typical childhood dance and singing lessons while being raised in a Methodist church. She went on to study at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, where she met Ben.

His journey to stardom began early as his theater-loving mom dragged him to her own community theater auditions. He was told to audition for parts, too, and his talent quickly became apparent to others.

“I just sort of went along with it,” he said, adding that his heart was never in it.

“That was part of the problem — I never had a burning desire,” he said. “It was just something I grew up doing.”

But he did it well enough to land lucrative roles by the time he was a teenager, and by the time he was 30 he had returned to and left the business three times.

After they married in 1993, Ben and Amy moved to New York so she could pursue her dream of performing on Broadway.

Ben landed the role of Jack in Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim and as Wayne Frake in 1996 in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair. Amy performed as a member of the production’s ensemble.

Eventually, Amy said she felt she had accomplished her goal. They moved to North Carolina to be near her relatives.

“I said, OK, it’s time to start a family.”

‘He felt empty’

The couple, however, kept working. Ben’s acting credits include films like Born on the Fourth of July and Renaissance Man. He starred opposite Judd Nelson in NBC’s Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes.

Amy appeared in television ads for cars, restaurants and hair-care products. She also ran a performing arts studio for children.

All that time, Amy said, they sensed there had to be more.

“Ben will say that on stage, he felt empty ... and that to take the applause didn’t feel quite right.”

What did begin to feel right was the birth of their first daughters, Lillie and Emma Grace, now 15 and 13, respectively.

Their births took Amy’s faith to a new level and inspired her to write an album of spiritual music for children.

“I had a very deep faith as a child and a teen and that developed more in adulthood with each child I had,” she said.

‘A new perspective’

But if that was the case with Lillie and Emma Grace, it was even more the case with Beau.

“When we learned about Beau’s diagnosis I felt so sad and overwhelmed,” Amy said. “But I feel that was the moment I was drawn closer to God.”

BittyBeauWithin a short time the couple realized what a blessing a Down Syndrome child is, and they began — just barely — to glimpse the positive impact Beau would have on their family.

“In an instant we had a new perspective.”

Five years later Jane Adeline, or “Bitty,” was born with Down Syndrome. Doctors had given her only a 25 percent chance to be born alive.

That new perspective has inspired the Wrights — including their children — to become advocates for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

In 2012, Amy penned a song titled It Starts with a Voice which led to a local benefit concert that included performances by their two oldest daughters. It also inspired a music video and further performances at the National Down Syndrome Congress and Best Buddies International.

The song also is being used in a Special Olympics school enrichment program and it serves as the title for a blog Amy writes to advocate for those with disabilities.

The two older daughters are promoting education and outreach efforts around special needs, and Beau starred in the film Little Accidents, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

Ben opened an investment firm and hired nine employees with developmental and intellectual disabilities as hospitality associates to greet clients. He also continues his singing — but mainly to promote the same cause.

“When I sang on Broadway, it felt empty,” Ben said. “This feels like the proper use of the gifts I have been given.”

‘Two steps into the journey’

The family’s impact has also been felt at their church, where they are active in the special needs ministry at First Baptist Church.

“Their passion in helping the rest of the world see people with disabilities in a positive way is inspiring,” said Jeannie Troutman, minister to children at First Baptist. “Within our church they have been real advocates for our special needs children.”

The Wrights have handled their difficulties with grace and serve as examples of how to walk through adversity with faith.

Amy said that walk is made possible by realizing she and her family’s calling is to help build acceptance for people with special needs in society.

“All those years I performed, I feel like that was priming me for these moments that are happening now,” she said.

And even the advocacy work they’ve done so far is likely preparation for new roles God has for them, Ben added.

“Everything we have done from birth to now is for a reason,” he said. “And the most important work we have to do we haven’t done yet — I think we’re just two steps into the journey.”