Sophie Stern

Sophie Stern at her high school graduation in 2022

Sophie Stern planned to be a dancer when she was 8 years old.

“The first time I got on stage, I was in a dance ensemble, and I just knew it was right,” she told Jewish News.

Now, at 19, nothing’s changed to dim her passion for dance, all kinds of dance — especially modern. She acts, sings and “loves all the performing arts,” but it was dance that captured her heart.

When she’s not on stage, Stern is also a passionate advocate for people with an intellectual or developmental disability (IDD). That includes herself, given that she has Down syndrome.

As the newest member of the Arizona Developmental Disabilities Planning Council (ADDPC), she will have a pretty big platform to promote self-advocacy and self-determination for those with an IDD.

The 23-member council is composed of self-advocates, family members, professional stakeholders and state agency representatives — all appointed by the Governor. Stern was the last member to be appointed by former Gov. Doug Ducey.

The council addresses the critical needs of people in all stages of life, including housing, transportation, employment, “and especially, community inclusion,” said Jon Meyers, director of ADDPC.

“Our hope is to create and promote opportunities for people to be embraced, become part of the community and find equitable opportunities wherever they might live,” he said.

Meyers first came to know Stern through her mother, Amy Silverman, who read her personal essays about raising a daughter with Down syndrome on KJZZ, National Public Radio’s Phoenix affiliate station.

Meyers was so captivated by the essays that he reached out to Silverman, and the two became friends.

That’s how Stern first learned of the open council seat, but there’s no doubt she earned her position, Meyers said.

To become a council member, Stern had to apply and demonstrate that she had something valuable to contribute, he said.

“She’s on the council because she deserves to be on the council,” he said. Stern is creating a life and career as a member of her community, which makes her a great addition.

Stern graduated from McClintock High School in Tempe last year and now attends Glendale Community College, with a focus on dance. She is a regular performer at Detour Company Theatre, a Scottsdale theatre company for adults with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities.

In fact, when Stern attended her first council meeting in January, she couldn’t wait to tell people of her involvement with Detour and share information about its upcoming shows.

“There’s no question that she is going to thrive,” Meyers said. “She’s very gregarious and passionate about the things that matter to her.”

Stern looks forward to sharing insights about her Judaism with her fellow council members and speaking out for her rights and beliefs.

She already has some practice at advocating for herself.

“One time, I was in class and someone called me the R-word and I told him not to. The teacher was in the hallway and another student repeated the word,” she said. Rather than letting the situation go, she told her theater teacher, who was able to intervene.

“If someone has a disability, saying the R-word is like saying the F-word,” Stern said.

While performing in the musical “Hairspray,” she had another occasion to tangle with the offensive word, which appears in the script.

“That’s really bad and my friend said it on stage. I was not OK with that, so I went to the director and told her it was a bad word for people with disabilities, but she wouldn’t take it out,” Stern said.

She let her mother know about the conflict and they were able to convince the director of the need to remove the word from the script.

“My friend Al was next to me when I told the director and he gave me the biggest hug ever and said that he loved me so much,” Stern said. Sadly, Al died in a car crash on Oct. 24, 2021. 

“That was hard; it’s very hard to get emotions out and I was very, very upset,” she said.

On the recent anniversary of his death, Stern made a cake and took it to the crash site.

“I don’t know how I did it without crying. I’m so proud of myself,” she said.

Amy Hummell, executive director of Gesher Disability Resources, agreed that Stern is a good fit for ADDPC because of her ability to self-advocate.

Hummell co-hosted a book event with Meyers a few years ago for “My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love and Down Syndrome,” Silverman’s book about her daughter. When Damon Brooks & AssociatesGesher’s speakers’ bureau, was asked to find a speaker about Down syndrome for an event this spring, Hummell first asked Silverman to speak, thinking Stern might be too young.

They decided instead that Stern should tell her own story; it’s a real bonus that she is not afraid of public speaking.

“It’s not the same when someone tries to tell a person’s story for them,” Hummell said.

Additionally, helping people with disabilities find jobs was one of the reasons for acquiring the bureau. Unemployment in the disability community is upwards of 75% and of that percentage, 75% are ready, willing and able to work — but haven’t been given the opportunity, Hummell said.

“People have it in them to speak up but don’t know how, and often they’re not cheered on. Sophie has family support which gives her confidence and then she can support others, which is why she’s such a good representative on the council.”

Meyers said finding self-advocates to be on the council can be challenging, which is why he and others are excited to see what Stern does now that she’s a member.

“She clearly has the drive to become someone who is a standout, regardless if she has a disability,” Meyers said. “I don’t think she looks at herself as someone with Down syndrome; she looks at herself as a dancer and a sister and a daughter and a friend — someone who is living an incredible life.”

Stern knows exactly what she’s going to do with her time on the council.

“I’m going to tell everyone that people should stand up for one another.” JN

February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month. To learn more about Gesher Disability Resources, visit and to learn more about Arizona Developmental Disabilities Planning Council, visit