They want their voices to also be heard

Andy Otto, at the microphone, sings "You Raise Me Up" on Thursday during a concert by the Heartlight Choir, a group of people with physical and cognitive disabilities. On Omaha.com/metro, see video of the singers.

For the last year and a half, Cory Wernimont has mostly stopped speaking.

A 21-year-old with Down syndrome, he'll often go an entire week without uttering a word, said his mother, Jane Wernimont. He won't even speak to girls he meets, something he used to be so eager to do.

Even so, on Thursday, Wernimont stood with his friends in front of an audience of more than 200 and sang, moving his mother to tears.

Wernimont joined about two dozen other people with physical and cognitive disabilities for the Heartlight Choir's first public performance Thursday night at the Community Engagement Center on the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus.

The choir is the largest program organized by Gotta Be Me, a nonprofit dedicated to the inclusion of people with disabilities in the community.

Tiffiny Clifton, who founded Gotta Be Me last November, calls the nonprofit a "university of life." Its purpose isn't just to provide activities for people with disabilities, she said, but also to introduce the larger community to those people.

"Everybody in our community has something to offer, no matter what their physical or mental status may be. They have something to offer their neighbor," Clifton said. "A lot of times, we don't have the opportunity to meet those that are out of our everyday circles."

Every Monday since the group's inception, its members have been meeting for choir practice. The singers have special needs in varying degrees and types, including Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and verbal dysphasia.

Music, said Marilyn Hinkle, the choir's founder, is the answer to everything.

On Thursday, many of the two dozen singers in attendance smiled as they belted out numbers such as Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" and Adele's "Rolling in the Deep."

After the show, Cory Wernimont smiled and held a bouquet as a large group surrounded him.

He felt fine, he said. And he was happy that the girls had come to watch him sing.

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