A Theater With Heart
The River runs with hope: TUTS' affiliate gives disabled kids a chance to bestage stars
Not all art is about the final product. Sometimes, it's all in the process. And the process has the ability to transform.
Faculty and staff of The River Performing and Visual Arts Center, an affiliate of Theater Under the Stars (TUTS), know how to engage children with a wide range of disabilities — from mild to severe — children with chronic illnesses, children who are disadvantaged economically. Some are non-verbal, blind, with Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities, or come from abusive environments.
Ultimately, the goal is not to coach stars but to use the creative process to help children develop in ways traditional teaching and communication methods have failed to do.
Imagine an introverted child who doesn't speak open up on stage facing 100 or so people. Or one whose coordination skills aren't fully matured being able to follow basic steps and choreography. Or a kid who's lacking social skills finding himself collaborating and making friends, easily.
With loud cheers and wild applause, you would have thought The River's summer Seussical performance at the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center was filled with the hottest celebs du jour. Indeed, the room was filled with bright young stars, each making huge strides in his/her own personal development. Families and friends were not shy to offer their encouragement, love and a tear — or two.
Seussical was the culmination of one of many one-week Fine Arts Summer Camp programs where music, song, dancing, art and theater mingle to create holistic educational opportunities allowing these children to benefit from creative activities.
Colorful art on the walls expressed each child's individuality. Some participated by dancing. Others by reciting lines, often with comedic delivery while wearing wigs and using amusing props. And there was plenty of live music.
The room was filled with bright young stars, each making huge strides in his/her own personal development. Families and friends were not shy to offer their encouragement, love and a tear — or two.
At 6 years old, Jessica suffers from tuberous sclerosis, a condition that causes the growth of benign tumors in the brain and other vital organs causing developmental and behavioral problems.
"I have seen her continuously grow and mature, improving many of her faculties," Jeannine Garnett, Jessica's mother, says. "She responds very well to music and dance, both which have helped develop her speech."
For Karen Jacobson, watching her 16-year old autistic grandson Gage flourish is emotional.
"This is his second summer," she says."I saw a difference in Gage after only one week. He's been able to make and keep friends, and everyone participates."
"The little things that a student achieves like staying on stage, saying their name and standing in front of a large audience are huge benchmarks in their development," says Rozie Curtis, community outreach manager.
Susanna Moses has two daughters enrolled in the program. "Monica is 14 years old and has high functioning autism," she says. Siblings are also welcome, enabling children to make a smoother transition into the program and giving parents some breathing room.
"It's brought Monica out of her shell, making many friends," Moses says. "She's singing all the time and has become passionate about designing cartoons. Her dream is create a website where children like her are able to send in artwork and stories to share."
Monica was also part of The River's Performance Troupe, a special program where students from Theater Under the Stars' Humphrey School of Musical Theatre learn and perform side-by-side. The troupe performed at TUTS gala in April, where even this reporter was moved by the display of students helping students in a spirited rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."
One of Humphrey's students is now an assistant teacher in the program and a University of Houston dance major. Meet Katey Tidwell.
"The River has changed the direction of my life," Tidwell says. "Since joining The River, I have begun learning sign language and learning more about each different disorder that I come across with a child. I want to give them a chance to shine and show everyone what they can do."
It's been roughly a year since TUTS and The River merged, enabling its executive director, Sandy Wicoff, to dedicate the nonprofit's administrative staff of three to concentrate mostly on programming while avoiding duplication of services and work.
"The merger grew out of joint programming beginning in 2007," John Breckenridge, president and CEO of TUTS, says. "Early in the process and during a visit to the The River, one of the more severely disabled children named Christine sat on my lap. I fell in love with her and knew there was more TUTS could do by partnering with Sandy."
The merger was approved in April, 2010. With synergy, opportunities emerge.
One of Humphrey's students is now an assistant teacher in the program and a University of Houston dance major. "The River has changed the direction of my life," Katey Tidwell says.
"We have developed evaluation methods to assess and measure the outcome of our programs," Wicoff says. "With the arts being intangible, attaining measurables is very challenging. We want to document the efficacy of our programs to ensure we are offering what the community needs and what benefits the child the most."
With serious concerns about education funding, the merger has enabled The River to maintain its programs and services and look forward to future areas of need.
"Once they turn 19, they are too old to be at the younger level," Wicoff explains. "In Houston, they would have little to do, though the need doesn't just go away. We are exploring ways to add adult programming with new relationships."
The River serves 1,700 students yearly through summer camps, life skill classes and residencies in public schools, community service organizations and hospitals — all on a $350,000 budget, about a third of TUTS' education funds.
In 1996, The River began out of the need of founders Cathy and Bob Binstock. They were looking for a venue where their 3-year-old Samantha, who suffered from cerebral palsy, could take ballet. In its infancy the program provided a movement class for seven girls with disabilities. To date, it has served more than 10,000 children and their siblings.
"I can't believe what I am watching sometimes," Wicoff says. "Turning shyness into confidence and disabilities into abilities is an overwhelming reward for everyone involved."