When Savannah Thompson walked onto the stage at the Carolina Country Music Festival in June, the crowd erupted in applause.
Thompson, who has Williams syndrome, was on hand to receive a ceremonial check from festival organizers who donated $10,000 to the planned playground for children with disabilities that will bear her name.
“The mayor [John Rhodes] has been the driving force behind this,” said Lance Thompson, Savannah’s father. “He loves Savannah and Savannah loves him. ... It’s great that Savannah’s name is associated with it. It’s going to be a wonderful amenity for the community that’s going to be used and enjoyed by special needs kids and all kids.”
Savannah Thompson, 19, said she agreed.
“It will be awesome,” she said.
Rhodes said his long relationship with the Thompson family helped him see a need in the city and work to address it.
“Knowing her for so long and seeing the inspiration she gives other kids ... I couldn’t think of a better person to name [Savannah’s Playground] after,” Rhodes said. “She’s always outgoing and smiling. Really, I don’t think – in her mind – there’s anything she can’t do.”
Williams syndrome is a genetic condition that causes physical and mental disabilities. Having a highly social personality and an affinity for music are among the characteristics of the condition.
Savannah’s Playground is a $3 million facility being built behind Crabtree Gymnasium on 4.5 acres on the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base property.
Rhodes said he thought to build the park after seeing a playground that is used during Grand Strand Miracle League games. But when those games are not happening, the park is closed to the public. Savannah’s Playground will be open year-round.
Bob Durkin, president of Full House Productions, the company that organized the country music festival, said the group was looking for a local charity to donate to that was “near and dear” to Myrtle Beach.
“Any charity that is centered around children is special,” Durkin said. “And when we heard more about the playground and what it was for and met Savannah, we knew it was the right fit.”
Rhodes said he plans to order equipment in the next week for the playground that will feature interactive apparatus such as a tic-tac-toe board and a musical park.
Savannah Thompson loves music and is known to stop what she’s doing to sing and dance along to almost any Taylor Swift song. Having a highly social personality and an affinity for music are among the characteristics of Williams syndrome, according to the Williams Syndrome Association.
“Wherever Savannah is a party breaks out,” Lance Thompson said.
Savannah Thompson said the country music festival was full of fun and surprises – not just getting the $10,000 through a percentage of ticket sales. She got to meet Hunter Hayes, one of her favorite singers, and sing with him on his tour bus shortly before his June 7 performance.
“He was so cute,” Savannah Thompson said, gushing. “He was so hot.”
Was he nice?
“Yes, he was nice, too,” she said. “I asked him if he had a girlfriend and he said yes.”
Then what did she do?
“I told him if they break up to call me,” she said, slapping her thigh with laughter.
Having special needs
Savannah Thompson was born with Williams syndrome, a genetic condition that causes physical and mental disabilities, Lance Thompson said. That condition led her to have open-heart surgery when she was just shy of 4 years old, and there were complications.
“When she had surgery she had a reaction to the anesthesia and went into cardiac arrest on the table,” Lance Thompson said. “She went 23 minutes without oxygen to her brain and that caused significant brain damage.”
Savannah Thompson was in a coma for 27 days and she had not been responsive to several tests.
Lance Thompson said the doctors told he and his wife that when it reached day 30 they would consider Savannah Thompson to be in a vegetative state and that the Thompsons should start thinking about quality of life.
“She’s always been a very sensitive child,” Lance Thompson said as Savannah Thompson gave him a hug. “From the time she was very young, if you sang ‘Hush, Little Baby,’ she would cry.”
23 The number of minutes Savannah did not have oxygen to her brain.
After being told to start thinking of their daughter’s quality of life, Savannah Thompson’s mother Marjorie took her out of the bed and held her in her lap.
“She started singing ‘Hush, Little Baby’ and a tear came out of [Savannah’s] eye,” Lance Thompson said.
He said Marjorie Thompson called him and told him that their daughter was aware of what was going on around her. She was getting better.
“So we say Savannah took a 27-day nap,” Lance Thompson said. “We went to a neurologist and they say that brain cells aren’t supposed to be able to regenerate themselves. ... I don’t like to use the word miracle, but it was a miraculous event.”
Savannah Thompson, a “super senior” at Socastee High School, is not able to read or write, has trouble moving her left arm and drags her left leg behind her when she walks – always wearing high-top Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers. (She has 29 pairs in a variety of colors, her father said, and on the day of the interview her nails were painted to look like Chucks.)
I don’t think any young couple would say, ‘You know what would be neat? We should have a child with special needs.’ But I wouldn’t wish for anything else.”
“I’m not sure if the cardiac arrest had never happened what would have happened developmentally,” Lance Thompson said. “With Williams syndrome there would always be challenges. We just prayed she would recover.”
Leading a normal teenage life
Peggy Ohlinger, a Surfside Beach resident, has served as Savannah Thompson’s caretaker “since the day she was born,” Ohlinger said.
Ohlinger already was working with the Thompson family, taking care of Savannah Thompson’s older sister, Chandler, at a small day care.
“I’ll be with [Savannah] until the day they say they no longer need me,” Ohlinger said.
Ohlinger helps out at her daughter’s shop, Stephanie’s Salon and Day Spa, in the Forestbrook area and has arranged for Savannah Thompson to work there for three summers.
She leads a normal teenage life. She has some trouble to read and write, but she doesn’t have any trouble navigating life.”
Peggy Ohlinger, caretaker for Savannah Thompson
Savannah Thompson helps out by folding towels, greeting customers and taking stylists their tips.
“She loves the perks of working here,” Ohlinger joked after Savannah Thompson pointed out the places in the spa where she gets her massages, facials, hair and nails done.
Lance Thompson said Ohlinger helps Savannah Thompson when he and his wife aren’t able to.
“We just hang out,” Ohlinger said. “Wherever I go, she goes. If I get my nails done, go swimming, whatever. I will take her to school and pick her up. Her parents and I pass her off so that Savannah’s not alone. ... Her mom and dad and me are her security blanket.”
The special education program at Horry County Schools allows children to stay until they are 21 years old, when they graduate. She attended Lakewood Elementary and Forestbrook Middle schools before starting at Socastee High.
“Every single one of those was phenomenal, from teachers to staff support,” Lance Thompson said. “I’m so impressed about how that entire school community has embraced that special needs class – the students are safe but they’re also exposed to the things that general population is exposed to.”
And Lance Thompson said his daughter has made good friends in the school system.
“We’re very fortunate that she has very good friends, and that they’ll come and get her to do things,” he said July 15. “Just last week she had lunch with friends from school.”
Ohlinger said Savannah Thompson has a positive outlook on life, waking up eager every day.
“She leads a normal teenage life,” Ohlinger said. “She has some trouble to read and write, but she doesn’t have any trouble navigating life.”
For the past 10 years, Savannah Thompson also has participated with Grand Strand Miracle League, which provides an opportunity for people with special needs to compete in sports.
“It feels great that she’s such an inspiration to people,” Miracle League Executive Director Jennifer Averette said. “People are just drawn to her everywhere we go. She’s such a sweet and pleasant person to everyone.”
Averette said Savannah Thompson appears on marketing materials for the Miracle League, including a billboard with former Major League Baseball player Reggie Sanders.
“She’s like a little local celebrity,” Averette said.
Savannah Thompson has played soccer and baseball as a shortstop with the Miracle League. Which sport does she like better?
“Both,” she said, laughing.
She’s also had some opportunities with the Special Olympics, Lance Thompson said, saying she’s participated in the baseball toss and 100-meter walk.
Savannah Thompson, who said she loves to sing, also will sing the National Anthem and lead the Pledge of Allegiance at Miracle League and Special Olympics events.
Savannah Thompson said she hopes to go on to Coastal Carolina University and participate in the four-year Learning Is For Everyone – or LIFE – program.
“Go Chants!” she said.
The program provides post-secondary education for young adults who have mild to moderate intellectual disabilities, according to CCU’s website.
Savannah Thompson loves Coastal – and Clemson University, where her sister went to school – and said she looks forward to seeing the teal theme that she chose for the playground named after her.
Get more information about Savannah’s Playground at http://savannahsplayground.org
She didn’t get to try out the equipment that will be at Savannah’s Playground, but Lance Thompson said they definitely are excited about the musical part.
“The music component is really unique,” Lance Thompson said. “You see traditional equipment at other [enabling parks], but you don’t see something like that. And Savannah loves music.”
Ohlinger said Savannah Thompson’s outlook on life is one of the best things about her personality.
“It’s almost like Christmas Day every day for Savannah,” Ohlinger said. “That’s how she lives. She just enjoys life and I’m just along for the ride.”
Lance Thompson said that while there have been difficulties with his daughter as she’s grown up over the years, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“In the big scheme of things she doesn’t have any limitations,” Lance Thompson said. “She’s not on any medications. She has some physical issues, but her recall and deductive reasoning sometimes are better than mine.
“Savannah will always live with us – she won’t be able to live independently,” he said. “I don’t think any young couple would say, ‘You know what would be neat? We should have a child with special needs.’ But I wouldn’t wish for anything else.”