The girls and I attended the annual Volunteer Appreciation Supper for the Alexander Society for Special Needs. My friend, Kathleen, started the society ten years ago ... ten years, hard to believe.
The Alexander Society provides arts-based educational programs to children and teens with special needs, as well as providing resources for people working with special needs populations, organizing workshops and special guest speakers, producing materials such as videos and workbooks, and promoting the inclusion of people with special needs into their communities.
But it's best known for the two after-school Creative Arts Programs (one for children aged 5 - 11 and one for teens) where each child is paired up one-on-one with a volunteer adult, which is why volunteers are so integral to it all. Each program runs once a week for eight to ten weeks and combines storytelling and creative drama, music, creative movement and dance, and visual arts and crafts.
For each multi-week session, one story is chosen and developed using visuals such as a story board, simple costumes and “sets” or felt board cut-outs. On the first day, the essence of the entire story is told and the first “episode” is detailed, at which time the students are enrolled in dramatizing that episode. The story and drama are permeated with songs and story themes are further developed in movement, music and art.
Each week the previous week's story is retold, a new episode is added, dramatized and then deepened with movement, music and art activities. On the final day, the whole story is retold, highlighting favourite songs and actions. By this time, some of the students will be able to help tell the story.
One of the many things that makes Creative Arts so special is the way the story is told. Kathleen has always found amazing storytellers, who tell the story in their own words, as opposed to reading it. Storytellers with incredible voices that, along with their eye contact, engage and transport the the students, drawing them into the story when their attention wanders. The drama is developed by enrolling the students and their assistants and directing them through the actions. Each week, different people take on different roles.
Movement and dance are used to help the children develop balance, laterality, dominance for right or left handedness, fine and gross motor skills, concentration, motor planning, memory, and much more. Music helps develop auditory awareness, concentration, fine motor skills, language development, sequencing and memory. Art, which can include drawing, painting with water colour, acrylics, and finger paint, clay work, weaving and handiwork related to the story, helps with writing skills and the children's ability to express themselves.
And the children (or should I say, for the teen group, the young adults) absolutely love it. Both my daughters were involved in the playgroup when it first started ten years ago. After a few years, the Kit Kat dropped out, in large part because of how she struggled with group activities at the time. But looking back now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see how it really was a fun, compelling, learning experience for her at one time. I can also see how she has developed and moved beyond it.
But it has been an absolute God-send for the Blue Jay, as it has for so many other local children with special needs. In the beginning, before we had volunteers for each child, the parents would attend and each of us would work with someone else's child. It was an amazing experience to watch. To see the progress made by each of those children.
To see the Blue Jay, who had never delved into dramatic play, sway around the room like a true princess when the beautiful, patchwork purple gown was placed on her shoulders. To see a child in a wheelchair who seemed to respond very little to anyone else make that effort to strike the chime when the music leader sang that it was turn to play the music. To hear from a parent that a child who had never made shown any response like this in the past would now reach out his hand to take another child's hand at circle time, just as we always did at playgroup.
And the Blue Jay still looks forward to going every week, still proudly brings home and displays any artwork she has done. But what I noticed this evening, what prompted this post, was what I saw when the teens and their helpers went through some of the songs and told us some of the story they were currently doing.
I watched the Blue Jay's face literally light up when she sang. I saw some of the biggest, happiest smiles on her face that I have ever seen. And I watched another teen literally jump and down and giggle with delight as she attempted to share what was coming next.
And once again (as has happened every so often over the years), I sat back and found myself filled with a profound sense of gratitude. If it is challenging to raise a teenager (and who amongst us would posit it is not?), it is exponentially more challenging to raise a challenged teen. One who has the same hormonal and mood swings, the same drive for independence as the typical teen but only half the language skills and half the social skills and impulse control, just for a start. Add in other aspects of any particular disability, like obsessiveness or literally getting "stuck" on a topic/issue/ thought and it's fun, fun, fun ... NOT.
Seeing the Blue Jay so completely and unabashedly happy or perhaps more importantly, so happy just being herself, is a rare gift. And it reminded me once again (which I confess, I sometimes forget) how crucial such programs are for these kids. We spend a lot of time, money and effort trying to teach the Blue Jay how to be more like everyone else, how to fit in, how to develop the skills she will need to
It may well take a village to raise a child. But it most definitely takes very special people with the gift of creating very special programs to allow our children to not just grow, but thrive and flourish. And I will always be eternally grateful to those people.