Theater Camp Shines Spotlight on Developmentally Disabled

Jan. 21, 2017, 8:35 a.m. ·

Peformers at theater day camp work on their dance moves.

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Students with developmental disabilities are getting a chance to take center stage at a new theater camp in Omaha. It's a partnership between the Munroe-Meyer Institute and WhyArts.

Inside a small gymnasium at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, several dozen students with a variety of developmental challenges, like Down syndrome and autism, practice for their big performance the next night.

They’ll sing, read poetry, perform with puppets and dance.

They’re part of a new day camp in Omaha that hopes to benefit young people who are often overlooked when it comes to the performing arts.

The inaugural theater camp for children and young adults with developmental disabilities is a partnership between the Munroe-Meyer Institute and WhyArts, a local arts group.

The camp gives the fledgling performers their time in the spotlight.

Students at theater day camp rehearse for their performance. (Photo by Jack Williams,NET)

Courtney Stein is an instructor with WhyArts and she’s leading the rehearsal.

She wants to share the performing arts with a new audience, young people who aren’t typically thought of as performers.

“This population, sometimes it’s hard because they can’t tell you what they enjoy or we don’t always see a physical change, but there’s something that’s there,” said Stein. “It frees us all and it speaks to some part of us subconsciously, physically, mentally, all of that good stuff.”

This is a big deal for these students. They’re enthusiastic as they rehearse the dance steps they’ll show off to their parents and friends.

Each of the performers has a partner from WhyArts who guides them through the rehearsal and keeps them focused.

Stephanie Anderson with WhyArts is helping out with the theater camp too.

She hopes caregivers will notice how much the young people enjoy expressing themselves through the performing arts.

“It’s just not on their radar that it would benefit this population from doing work in the arts and it has such an amazing benefit, not only them working together as an ensemble, the thing I like about doing theater is it’s like a team sport, but it’s not a competition,” said Anderson.

Dr. Karoly Mirnics is the director of the Munroe-Meyer Institute, which specializes in the treatment of children and young adults with developmental disabilities and other specialized healthcare needs.

“Arts is a very important part of enhancing human well-being and existence and nobody should be left behind in this endeavor,” Mirnics said.

He’s helped bring the theater camp to the Omaha campus and would like to expand the performing arts program across the state.

“We have a 500-mile wide campus and we take this very seriously and we want to explore this opportunity in the areas outside the major cities too,” he said.

This is the first time Munroe-Meyer has teamed with WhyArts on a theater camp for children and young adults with developmental disabilities.

Both hope it isn’t the last.

Carolyn Anderson is the director of WhyArts and sees the benefits of the performing arts for both the students and their parents.

“It’s building self-esteem. It is making them feel good about it. It makes the families feel good,” said Anderson. “I have families say it’s so nice to see my child participate in a play or do something like other kids do or other adults do.”

One of the stars of the show is Cadie Albin. She’s front and center in much of the performance and beams as she prances across the stage in one of the dance numbers.

Her mother, Cheri Albin, says Cadie is a natural performer and the arts camp gives her an outlet for her creativity that they probably wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else.

“For her to get out and perform and somebody watch and be involved with what she’s doing, yeah, it makes her light up,” said Albin. “That’s her thing. She’s a very social person, so to have an audience for her is going to be exciting.”

As students brush-up on their performance of Katy Perry’s “Roar”, Erin Bentzinger, an adaptive therapy specialist at Munroe-Meyer, watches with pride.

“There’s no disability that’s limiting them from this,” said Bentzinger. “This is adapted for them and this is their moment.”

The Munroe-Meyer Institute and WhyArts hope to expand the performing arts theater camp in coming years.