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What I Learned From My Students at an Inclusive Drama Camp

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I work at Down Syndrome of Louisville, a nonprofit that offers services and programs to individuals with Down syndrome and their families. Like many folks who work in a nonprofit, I wear many hats. I do outreach, teach life skills, host a weekly book club, coach the dance team (the Boogie Down Crew) and plan social events for tweens, teens, and adults. When planning social events, I have the opportunity to get our members out into the community, and help them gain independence and foster friendships. This is where today’s story begins.

A little background: I come from the theatre world. After graduating from a prestigious musical theatre program, I did a very short stint in the Big Apple before coming back to cozy Louisville and settling in at a lovely theatre in the area, Derby Dinner Playhouse (DDP). Derby was my “home” for 10 years where I would sing, dance, wait tables, and eventually find my passion for teaching the arts. From there, I took a leap of faith into the Down syndrome community, where I was welcomed with open arms.

Through my continued friendship with Derby Dinner, we have brought many groups from Down Syndrome of Louisville (DSL) to see shows. They are great friends to our organization. We always get the VIP treatment — pictures with the cast, tours, autographs, and one of our members is a loyal volunteer there. Luckily for me, I still get to work at Derby Dinner from time to time, and this past summer the stars aligned.

Tina Jo, the Education Director at DDP asked if I would like to come back to teach for a week of their summer musical theatre camp. Ever since I got my job at DSL, I had wanted to do some mixed-ability drama workshops and inclusive classes — this was my chance! I immediately said yes, but I wanted to sweeten the deal. I agreed to teach if some of my students can enroll for the week. A very enthusiastic yes came from Derby Dinner. Before I knew it, summer was upon us. Three of my amazing teens were signed up, I had done a small but informative Down syndrome 101 training with a colleague for the teaching staff, everyone was prepared, and we were ready to make some magic!

But the night before camp I began to worry.

“I won’t be with them all day. Will they be treated with kindness?”

“What if they don’t make friends?”

“Should I talk to the campers about Down syndrome? Or just let things be?”

I decided to just let things be. The teens from DSL who had signed up were confident, independent and wonderful. They could hold their own without me getting in their way, right? Wrong. This is where I was so wrong.

You see, being an advocate isn’t a part time job, or even a 40-hour-a-week job. It is a 24-7, 365, lifelong commitment. After a day of what I’ll call “the unknown,” my three fantastic, energetic, talented students with Down syndrome were getting some eye rolls, lots of stares, and were sitting by themselves at lunch. I realized my mistake almost immediately, and the next day spent 10 minutes out of each of my classes educating the campers ages 7 to 17 about Down syndrome. I started a conversation:

“We all have 46 chromosomes in our bodies; people with Down syndrome are special, because they get 47!”

“They might need extra help learning the choreography or memorizing their lines, just like you might need help with math or history.”

“No, it actually isn’t a disease. It is a genetic condition; there is nothing you can catch.”

In the oldest group that actually had the three students with Down syndrome in it, the students themselves answered the questions.

“I like Adele, and dancing.” (Me too!)

“I’m the school mascot.” (That is awesome!)

“I’m sassy and funny.” (Ha ha! That is true!)

In an instant, things changed. Through one conversation they learned what it was (Down syndrome), how they should behave (the same) and how their new friends should be treated (like everyone else). I could see the relief in their young faces, knowing they could come to me with any questions, and that questions were actually encouraged.

Within minutes, I was seeing friendships forming, helpers guiding, teams building, ensembles strengthening. They hugged their friends when they were embarrassed for messing up. They cheered when they got it right. They held hands when there were too many people and sensory overload made a girl freeze. They made videos with a boy at lunch when his friend couldn’t make it in to camp one day.

For the rest of the week, I was just the Creative Drama teacher. I sat back and watched the friendships form and the creative power flow. But the campers weren’t the only ones who learned a thing or two this summer. I learned something huge. Before the friendships and the inclusion and acceptance, there has to be information.

Information first, and then magic.

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Originally published: January 24, 2017
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