Singing, dancing, and sharing the arts
April 27, 2015
In the lobby of Orchard Elementary School in Ridgewood, New Jersey, there is not a lot of noise at 10 in the morning. But the sounds that manage to find their way into the lobby are ones to remember.
The soft chords of dance music play through the closed gymnasium doors, just enough for the parents sitting in the lobby to hear. As the music continues to play, the hard work of the students and volunteers can be heard through the constant pitter patter of their feet. The music and dancing stop for a brief second, and the sound of live music can be heard coming from down the hall.
During all this, one woman sits in the lobby with a coffee in her hand as she admires what she has done. Every dance step done in that gym and every note sung down the hall is a result of a dream that she had ten years ago to enhance the lives of children with special needs through the performing arts.
In the fall of 2005, Karen Sheehy looked around for a dance program for her daughter, Kaitlin. Kaitlin’s sister, Kristina, was always a dancer. As Kaitlin watched her sister’s rehearsals and recitals, Kaitlin became more convinced that she wanted to dance, too. Whenever Kristina danced around the house, Kaitlin would dress up and dance right by her side. Unfortunately, Sheehy could not find anything that would be suitable for her daughter with down syndrome. Eventually, she met a woman in Ridgewood. As it turned out, the woman was looking for the same thing for her child.
“I was searching for a dance program with the criteria that we currently use, but I couldn’t find it,” Sheehy said. “There were programs for special needs children, but they did not expose children to the normal dance environment.”
The two stopped trying the look for the program that they wanted. Instead, they decided to create it. In a little living room, they rearranged the furniture and created a dance area. Sheehy’s friend taught the two children different dance moves. The success was enough to give Sheehy and her friend the idea of growing the program.
Once Sheehy knew that she wanted to teach more children in a studio, she faced a minor obstacle: she needed insurance. In order to do this, Sheehy needed an official program, and, thus, Sharing the Arts was born. From the very start of the program, Sheehy knew what she wanted the program to give children with special needs the opportunity that they were not given before.
“Our goal is to provide a typical dance experience with costumes and music, but with enough support that no one would ever feel pressured to be in the perfect position. Our mission was to enhance children through the arts. These kids work so hard with their therapy, they would have no time for this opportunity,” Sheehy said.
From what began with three or four people grew. From what originally had a single location of a church in Ho-Ho-Kus eventually spread out. Now, between students, teachers, and volunteers, there are between 50- 75 people involved in the non-profit organization, with locations in Glen Rock, Ridgewood, and Glen Ridge.
“I’m very proud to be a part of it,” Sheehy said. “It has grown and evolved into teens being able to run a lot of it. It just makes you happy to see the kids embracing it. It allows them to see past their disability and just have fun.”
Sharing the Help
At Orchard Elementary, as the parents chat with each other, children of all ages begin dancing, singing, and smiling as soon as the clock strikes 10. In the gymnasium, Mary Morrow, along with the help of several volunteers, teach these children how to dance to the music that plays on the speaker.
Four of these volunteers are Victoria Sandner, Emily Bermudez, Justine Sandt, and Julia Podest. For all of them, this is their first year volunteering in Sharing the Arts. Luckily, they all came with experience working with children with special needs. Each of them had worked in Camp Acorn in Ridgewood at some point. From the beginning of their work in Sharing the Arts, they realized that this would not be the same type of work.
“There are a lot more activities with the kids,” Podest said.
Although some of the volunteers have had more dancing experience than others, they all share the common goal to make the kids better dancers. Whether it be showing them the steps or making them smile, the volunteers do what they can to make the kids’ Saturday mornings special.
“We help them with the steps when they are having trouble,” said Sandt. “We also encourage them to help them get better.”
Despite all the fun that the volunteers have with the kids, the best part for some of the volunteers is not even the physical dancing.
“The best part is watching them smile as they dance,” Bermudez said. “It’s nice to see how happy they are.”
Sacrificing their Saturday mornings might not seem ideal for some teenagers, but for these volunteers, the time spent with the kids is completely worth it.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Sandner. “It’s very cute to watch them.”
Sharing the Notes
One volunteer, Kara Mendez, decided not to leave Sharing the Arts completely when she stopped volunteering after five years. This past year, she decided that she wanted to try teaching the class herself.
“Their last location was right down the street from my house, I think about two blocks away. When they opened and I saw that it was a performing arts school, I walked over to see what it was,” Mendez said.
What she found would soon become an opportunity for her to make a difference.
“They were looking for volunteers. It was a great way to get some volunteer hours done and it was a very good cause.”
After volunteering for five years, Mendez decided to gain more experience in the vocal and drama field. While looking for a job, she called the person that she had been working with for quite some time: Karen Sheehy. Mendez asked about any job opportunities that were open in the program. It just so happened that Sharing the Arts needed a drama teacher. Mendez soon became the vocal and drama teacher of the program.
The first day of the class began with the entire class deciding what the theme would be. After the theme is chosen and agreed upon, the next step is deciding who would be doing what.
“A lot of times I will go home and monologue for them,” said Mendez. “But usually, song-wise, they have a pretty big say in what they’re doing and what character they’re doing. We usually narrow that down first and pick things that they already know.”
This past semester, the kids each chose their favorite character from Kids on Broadway and sang some of the musical’s best tunes. Prior to the famous Broadway classic, the kids performed other favorite musicals: Annie, Matilda, Beauty and the Beast, Les Mis, and Charlie Brown. The children spend the Saturday mornings practicing and having fun, but they adhere to one simple rule: whatever they begin the semester with, they must end with the same idea.
“I like to focus really heavily on making sure that they pick their own job, role, and ambition and they follow that through to the end that you have thing that you’re deciding on, committing to, being part of it, and then completing the goal as a way to teach them how to decide on something and then commit to that goal in order to complete it,” Mendez said.
“We’ve decided on this eight weeks ago, and over those eight weeks we can’t change it, we can’t do something different, we can’t change our minds. We have to commit to this role and then follow it through.”
Prior to the kids coming in, Mendez takes the time to transform the classroom into a set for a performance, the kind that their favorite Broadway stars sing and perform on. She even uses the projector to display a live audience to mimic how they would feel in a live performance. As they enter the classroom, the children are immediately brought into a world where they can sing and act just like their idols do.
Yet aside from her attempt to improve all the children’s vocal and acting skills, Mendez knows that her real job is far beyond that. She knows that outside her room, life is a lot more than the singing and dancing for these children.
“Our goal… is to really prepare them for like the next step in life. None of students are going to go out and go to college for musical theater, and become Broadway stars, but some are going to go on to higher education where all of these skills are really important in the next step of life, especially stuff like the ability to talk to people and the ability to talk to a group of people and pushing past the boundaries of shyness.”
One of Mendez’s students has been proving the success of that class and Sharing the Arts as a whole since she began taking the vocal and drama class.
“One of my students in September was so quiet that you could barely hear her sing. By this past class, she was singing over the recording. Everyone in the room can hear her. That’s really our goal in the classroom setting.”
All the hard work that Mendez puts in pays off each Saturday morning, when she sees how happy the children are.
“I like the reactions that I get from the students. I think most teachers will say that. No matter what you’re teaching, you hope for your students’ well-beings,” Mendez said. “I like when they feel proud of themselves and when they think that they did a really great job.”
Sharing the Stage
On Tuesday afternoons, most Glen Rock high school students are picked up shortly after dismissal or begin the walk home. Others will go to a practice or game, while some might go to a club that they are a part of. Some students, however, head straight for the band room next to the auditorium. Here, a number of students dedicate their time to share their love for the arts with kids from the program.
Just like the name, they’re sharing the arts.
The work in the band room begins before any of the kids come in. The chairs are put into a circle, leaving a big empty space in the middle for whatever dancing or acting is soon to come. Some of the chairs have students in them, while a few are left open for the children’s smiles that will soon show up.
Within a few minutes of entering the room, the students calm down their excitement in order to get ready to work. In front of them, Joanne Brown begins to read the daily agenda.
Joanne Brown has been a dance teacher for 13 years. Five years ago, she was approached by a student who gave her the opportunity to make a difference.
“I was approached by a Glen Rock student who wanted to bring Sharing the Arts to Glen Rock. She needed an adviser and asked me to be it,” Brown said.
She took full advantage of the opportunity.
“It sounded like a lot of fun, and something that I would enjoy.”
Joanne Brown soon became the club adviser for the Sharing the Arts program and has not stopped in those five years.
Along with Brown, students Abby Koenig and Delaine Karcanes help to bring out the full potential of the club. The two seniors bring their love of the arts to the club as student directors. Both have been in the program since their sophomore years of high school. The two shared the spot of student directors last year, as well. Both had past experience in Camp Acorn in Ridgewood, which inspired them to use their love for kids and combine it with their love for theater.
“Abby and I are both interested in theater,” Karcanes said.
“We both love kids and the theater,” Koenig added. “I thought that it would be nice to share my love of theater with these kids.”
With the recital coming up, all work is focused on getting the show planned out. Each year, the kids and the students put on an abridged musical. Last year, the kids sang and danced to the tunes of Jungle Book. Two years ago, it was Snow White that stole the stage.
This year, the club is hoping to have an even better result with their production of Toy Story.
Despite all the work that is necessary, the club members are confident that they will put on a successful performance.
“I’m really excited,” said Koenig. “Things are starting to get going. We have a lot more kids this year. The shows have been great in the past, but this one has the potential to be much better.”
Karcanes agreed. “The show is more well-known this year. I think it will be better,” she said.
Despite all the hard work that is being put into the show, the kids still manage to complete their biggest goal: have fun. Before the class even starts, kids go into the circle and show off the dance moves that they have learned. All the students watch and cheer the kids on.
“Aside from the musical, we also play games, dance, and sing,” Koenig said.
The fun has brought smiles to the faces of the kids, and has given the students something to look forward to.
“I love seeing the kids,” said Koenig. “It is always something to look forward to.”
For Karcanes, it cheers her up on even the worst of days.
“Even if I’m having a bad day, I will always be cheered up knowing that I have this to look forward to. Seeing what comes out of it just makes everything worth it.”
Through the three years of working in the club, the two student directors have had nothing but great experiences with these kids. When asked if they wanted to add anything else about the club, the two seniors looked at each other, smiled, and said in unison: “We’re going to miss it next year.”
Sharing the Experience, From Kids to Teachers
There is no doubt that the children in Sharing the Arts learn much during their time in Sharing the Arts, not only in the field of arts, but socially as well. These social skills carry over to wherever these children end up when they get older.
There is a possibility, however, that those learning the most in Sharing the Arts are those who teach the children.
For Abby Koenig, it has taught her to pass on what she knows to those less fortunate.
“It has taught me to give back more. It has taught me to share my fortune,” Koenig said. “It has also taught me how fortunate I am to have a school that gives back. It has also taught me to have patience.”
For Joanne Brown, it has taught her the importance of letting children of all abilities show off their full potential.
“It has taught me the importance of all children having the opportunity to express themselves in the arts. It has also taught me the importance of being part of a program that gives so much to these children.”
For Kara Mendez, each individual student gives her a new idea of how creative children with special needs can be.
“I think that especially when I had first started a long time ago, it really showed me the creative abilities and integrity of people with special disabilities, because a lot of times when you think of people with disabilities you don’t think of their creative side of things,” Mendez said, “I remember how shocked I was to have nonverbal students be able to sing, even though they didn’t speak.
“To have students with disabilities dance alongside other students and students with severe ADHD or a developmental disorder who can’t sit still and can’t focus and they’re nonverbal and then the music comes on and they’re still and they’re focused and they’re doing the routine with all the other students and the ability that they have is the greatest thing that I have learned.”
A lot of times, people look past what children with special needs can do, only seeing their disabilities. Sharing the Arts, however, knows that there is a lot more to each child.
“There’s a stigma against people with disabilities that they can’t do things that we do,” Mendez said. “Sharing the Arts breaks down all those stigmas.”
At the end of the day, all that can be seen are children running out the door to their parents, laughing and smiling, showing off all that they learned that day in the program that never stops giving.