NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The Academy of Country Music (ACM) hosted a week-long camp for adults with Williams Syndrome that ended with a grand finale on the Grand Ole Opry stage.
"It's truly the highlight of the year," stated ACM Lifting Lives Executive Director Lyndsay Cruz. "Williams Syndrome is very rare. It's one that affects one in 60,000 people and... to be able to communicate and meet other people that have the same diagnosis is just so beneficial for them."
Williams Syndrome is a rare genetic disorder that causes growth delays before and after birth. It can cause some mental deficiencies, distinctive facial features and short stature.
"With Williams Syndrome, we all love music. We all get to know one another. Talk about music," said 25-year-old ACM Lifting Lives camper Bryce Hubbard.
Over the course of the week-long camp, adult campers with Williams Syndrome had the chance to write a song, record and perform with Walker Hayes, Lindsay Ell and Runaway June.
"You wouldn't ever meet an artist that would come to this camp and then say they can't come again or they're too busy. I mean... they come up to me...and say... 'I'll do anything next year. Just whatever activity that you can slot me in. We want to come.' I mean, there's never a shortage of artists that want to participate," Cruz explained.
Runaway June joined the campers at Ocean Way Recording Studios on Music Row a day after they wrote their song.
"There was so much happiness and just smiles and everyone was hugging and there was just yeah, that energy just kind of knocked us over in the best way," said Runaway June. "We could all learn from these people. You know, it's like there's just so much joy here and just so much optimism and we could learn a lot from that."
Some of the campers had attended the camp in prior years and after the coronavirus pandemic canceled the in-person camp for several years, the campers chose to write a song about reunion.
"We just decided hey, you know, since we are back and we're reuniting with all of our friends, why don't we do a song about reunion?" explained 27-year-old ACM Lifting Lives camper Mackenzie Mansour. "It was like a dream to come true."
The campers' week takes them through the process of writing, recording and performing a song while helping make strides in their health.
ACM Lifting Lives partners with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center to study the campers to advance its mission of improving the lives of individuals with developmental disabilities through research, training, and service.
"The work that Vanderbilt does is so important," stated Cruz. "I mean, they have cancer research. And I mean, the fact that they study this and research this disease is so remarkable because it's so rare, and that we've been able to bring awareness to what this is, and who these campers are. So we're just so incredibly proud that we got to be a part of it."
While the research takes years, the joy and encouragement the campers and artists walk away with is immediate.
"One of the things that really struck me was that it's almost the unbridled joy of being a kid. It's the energy that was in the room today with all of the campers and such amazing adults but it reminded me of that joy of being in the studio for the first time and learning music for the first time and hearing your voice on a recording and going, 'oh my gosh, that's so cool. That's me!' You know? And we got to do that together," said Runaway June.
To learn more about ACM Lifting Lives music camp, visit its website.