Hollywood's humanitarians: Glee's Lauren Potter takes special needs advocacy to "new horizons"
Lauren Potter cracks us up as the inimitable Becky Jackson on Glee, but she doles out more than just laughs in her spare time. The sweet actress fills us in on her inspiring work with New Horizons, an organization that empowers individuals with developmental disabilities.
Growing up, Lauren Potter always wanted to be an actress — an ambition she wasn't shy to share with people. Sadly, such proclamations were often met with disbelief or disapproval from people who didn't believe this little girl with Down syndrome could make it in the world of entertainment.
"I just didn't listen to anyone who told me I couldn't," she told us of never giving up. "I listened to people, like my family, who said I could do anything I put my mind to and anything I worked hard at."
Potter's perseverance has clearly paid off. In 2009, she landed a major role on then-fledgling Fox show Glee, and over the past five years as Cheerio Becky Jackson, she has endeared herself to millions and become a true inspiration for people with special needs — a notion which actually inspires her. "I feel honored when people tell me that. I want other kids and people to follow their dreams and never give up," she said.
To that end, Potter has partnered with New Horizons, a nonprofit supporting people with special needs. This weekend, she's serving as the Grand Marshal of the organization's 7th Annual 5K Run/Walk on the Horizon. "They do so much to help people with disabilities," Potter gushed about the nonprofit. "They've been around for 60 years and they help people find jobs, learn skills to live independently and to follow their dreams."
Recently, the pretty star got the opportunity to spend some time at New Horizon's home base in North Hills. "I got to go see their place in the San Fernando Valley, and it was so cool to meet the staff and see the workshop and classrooms," she shared. "It was really fun to take pictures with the clients. They do amazing things there."
Since the organization's inception, they've evolved from helping a handful of individuals with special needs to providing services and support to nearly 1,000 individuals and social and recreational services to nearly 3,000 individuals. And Potter is optimistic that those numbers will continue to grow.
The key, of course, is involvement. You don't have to live near New Horizons to make a difference in the life of those with special needs, Potter explains. "[People] can help New Horizons help lots of great people with special needs by making a donation," she explained. "They can also help people with disabilities by being friends and accepting them."
So, we ask the actress, how do we as parents start a dialogue in our own homes about befriending special needs children? Particularly, how do we help our kids avoid becoming part of the cycle of bullying?
"You can teach your kids that words do hurt sometimes," offered Potter, who has been on the receiving end of insensitive slang. "And if there are better words to use that don't hurt someone, you should use those instead. Kids also need to stand up against bullying and feel safe to tell someone if they are bullied. And I guess it helps if parents don't use words that hurt, too."
As one of several characters with Down syndrome depicted on Glee, Potter is proud to be part of a show that works to reduce preexisting stigmas surrounding people who are "different" and which has "done amazing things for diversity for all people."
And it doesn't hurt to have encouragement from her fellow cast members, either. As the right-hand girl to Jane Lynch's hilarious Coach Sue character, Potter has had the privilege of working alongside Lynch as her "Beckretary." The veteran star has been incredibly supportive, Potter says.
"Jane is so nice and so sweet and so amazing," remarked Potter. "She is so funny, too! She has really helped me when we're in scenes together and, in the beginning when I would get nervous or stubborn, she helped me calm down and be the best I could be. I love Jane."
Ultimately, the actress — whom President Obama appointed to the President's Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities — hopes that through her character on Glee and through her advocacy with New Horizons, she can help people come to the realization that "different isn't bad — different is just different."
"I just want everyone to treat everyone equally, because we really are all different in so many different ways," she wisely observed. "But we are all people, and we all have the same feelings and hopes and dreams. I want to live in a world where we can all be who we are and where that's OK."