A standing room only crowd applauded and reached for their wallets when Jonathan Bunzey showed off his best swing dance gyrations at the Dancing Like the Stars fundraiser Saturday.
The Athens Drive High School student, who has been unable to speak since a bout with encephalitis as a toddler, received the largest amount of live donations at the fundraiser for the National Inclusion Project – a nonprofit that seeks to erase the barriers between kids with disabilities and the world around them.
Between Jonathan and the other dancers – local celebrities including Jake Fehling, director of media and PR for USA Baseball and the dancer with the highest donation amount overall – this year’s fundraiser brought in a record amount of more than $18,000.
“I want to do this for other kids, because I know what it feels like to be in their place,” Jonathan said in sign language through an interpreter.
A partnership between the National Inclusion Project, Arthur Murray Dance Studios and the Southern Women’s Show, Dancing Like the Stars is as much about awareness as it is about raising money, said Jerry Aiken, executive director of the Inclusion Project. This was the first year a student with a disability participated as a dancer.
“Having him out here, involved and participating with typical individuals, is a representation of what inclusion is all about,” Aiken said.
Founded by “American Idol” star and North Raleigh native Clay Aiken in 2003, the Project is a national organization, but the money also goes to fund local programs such as the A.E. Finley YMCA off Baileywick Road in North Raleigh, Hall said. Aiken is raising money for the Project now as a contestant on NBC’s “The Celebrity Apprentice.”
‘He never gives up’
The Finley YMCA is where Jonathan attended his first-ever summer camp as a pre-teen, enabled by a sign language interpreter provided by the Project. That was a big deal. Before he had an interpreter, Jonathan was stuck at home, unable to communicate with most other children. He felt lonely.
Since then, mom Heather Bunzey has seen her son’s confidence soar.
“I’m proud of his willingness to try hard,” Bunzey said. “He never gives up.”
After his experience connecting with other kids, Jonathan immediately wanted to make that possible for other kids like him. He started small, setting up lemonade stands when he was 12 with a modest goal of raising $400 for the Project. He ended up raising $1,000 in a six-hour shift outside a grocery store off Six Forks Road. The Project awarded him a Champion of Change award for his work in 2007.
Over the years, he’s raised more than $20,000 for inclusion opportunities, mostly for the Finley YMCA’s We Build People campaign.
That’s consistent with Jonathan’s ambitious personality, Horne and Bunzey agree. He’s determined to graduate from Athens Drive with a full diploma. After that, he wants to study video editing in college.
“He could easily push the easy button, but he refuses to,” Bunzey said.
Jonathan plans to keep dancing after the event. Most of all, he wants to continue spreading the word about the importance of reaching out to people with disabilities.
“I want people to know to not be scared, because they are just like you,” Jonathan said.