STAFFORD – The Stafford Township Arts Center lit up with a remarkable show presented by local students with multiple disabilities. Their performance included a heartwarming showcase of inclusivity and support – a resounding success in every way.
The stars of the show were students in grades 3-6 who regularly attend Stafford Schools in self-contained classroom settings. However, supporting roles for the “In the Spotlight” appearances featured another group of special kids.
A selection of sixth-grade students from Stafford Intermediate School attended as many as ten rehearsals to assist their peers. They worked diligently behind the scenes, practicing routines and dressing in black attire to serve as “stagehands” during the actual show.
The audience included the performers’ families and third and fourth-grade students from McKinley School. All sat quietly as one of the show’s directors delivered some brief instructions.
“You may notice the houselights are going to go down a little bit, but they’re not going to go out completely,” shared Caitlin Giore, a Social Emotional Learning and Drama teacher. “And, the stage lights may not be as bright as normal.”
Giore explained that some of the performers were a bit more sensitive to light and sound. Therefore, the emphasis was on making sure those on stage were able to focus on their performance.
“We’re also going to ask that instead of regular applause,” Giore said. “We are going to use our sign language so that whenever you want to show your appreciation, you will do that for your fellow students.”
Applause took the form of silent jazz hands as the audience was first asked to acknowledge the sixth-grade students situated on stage to help the performers. The show’s stars were costumed in blue t-shirts to ensure everyone knew the spotlight was on them.
Those outfitted in blue shirts headed to the colorful hula-hoops placed on the stage to mark their spots. A sense of routine and familiarity helped the students with multiple disabilities feel comfortable and confident.
“We typically use the hula-hoops, so if they step forward for one song, they can step back and stay contained in their zone,” shared Giore. “We have a few runners and are always concerned about safety and what could happen with anyone running off the stage.”
As the performers began by swaying in perfect unison, the audience showed their enthusiasm by cheering and clapping in silent sign language. Big screens showcased some of the stars acting in skits as students narrated a few favorite stories. Again, jazz hands shot up from every seat as a mark of appreciation for the morning entertainment.
“We’re going to teach you a bunch of silly ways to say goodbye to each other,” Giore told the audience when it was time for the last number. “We’d like you to stand up, and we’re going to ask you to repeat the movements after us. We’ve learned so much, and now it’s time to say goodbye.”
The experience was one that could not be taught as a simple classroom lesson. Audience members watched in awe as the students in blue shirts performed and were able to see the world through the eyes of others who faced unique challenges. The powerful message was not just about accepting differences or the ability to understand and feel for others.
In addition to empathy, the performance highlighted how much perseverance and determination matter in life. Families who attended the “In the Spotlight” show weren’t the only ones who left with a feeling of joy.
Sixth graders Lauralee “Lulu” Gundersen and James Vidaurre were two of the students who donned black attire to assist the stars in following their cues on stage. Both reveled in their roles as supporting actors.
“We were there to help the kids if they forgot something,” explained Lulu. “We also tried to make them feel better if they got upset.”
According to Lulu, she didn’t need to calm down any of the students assigned to her group. However, some of the other stars of the show appeared angry when they were frustrated. The cast worked together to create a less stressful performance environment.
Lulu and James said they were recruited as show assistants because they demonstrated leadership ability as part of Project AWARE. This program advances wellness and resiliency in education by increasing school mental health awareness. Both admitted they would have happily volunteered as they genuinely enjoyed the experience.
“We got to make new friends,” James shared. “We see some of these kids every day in the halls. They’re just like other students, but we don’t really get to talk to them at recess.”
James noted that one of his new friends was a bit nervous at the show’s beginning. However, he was pleased to see the same student smiling from ear to ear when the performance ended.
Madeline Myers teaches music at the McKinley School and has worked for the district for eight years. Meanwhile, this was the first time she had the opportunity to help direct the “In the Spotlight” performance.
“Music brings out a different side to these kids,” Myers said. “I absolutely loved working with them.”
No doubt that music was a powerful force that brought together everyone involved in the show, both on and off stage. It allowed them to express themselves and connect with each other, regardless of their differences.