Sharing the Arts Together: Performing arts club for special needs children helps them shine on stage
Liz Matejka-Grossman and Kathy Sheehy met back in 2005. They each have a daughter with special needs, and both moms wanted “a true ballet experience for the girls, one that was also in a forgiving environment,” Sheehy says.
Matejka-Grossman, a former professional ballerina, joined with Sheehy and started a ballet class in her living room. The program was much needed so it kept expanding. The end result is Sharing the Arts (sharingthearts.com).
According to the website, its mission “is to enhance the lives of individuals with special needs through the performing arts. Classes are led by teachers with support staff to provide redirection and assistance. Pre-teen through college-age volunteers serve as assistants, demonstrators, mentors, as well as friends in the class.”The programs offered include preballet/ jazz, hip-hop, vocal, acting and musical theater. Saturday classes are run through the Ridgewood Community School, and volunteers come from all over, including Ramapo High School, Indian Hills High School, Immaculate Heart Academy, Ridgewood High School and Glen Rock High School.
Matejka-Grossman emphasizes the importance of having peer role models. One excellent example of this is the Sharing the Arts clubs that have arisen at area high schools, including Ridgewood, Glen Rock and Glen Ridge.
At Ridgewood High School, the special needs participants come from all over, including New York City and the Delaware Water Gap, while the volunteers are Ridgewood High School students.
“The musical productions allow the kids to have a typical experience and find common ground with volunteers. Everyone can come together,” Matejka- Grossman says. “It has definitely changed the lives of the kids. It is also great for volunteers. Some of them have gone on to medical school or to become teachers in special education.”
Sheehy emphasizes that “it is the real collaboration between students, volunteers and staff at the high school that make it all work. It is very grassroots. A lot of people help along the way, and it is a labor of love.”
Jennifer Landa, a faculty adviser for the Sharing the Arts club at Ridgewood High School, is very enthusiastic about the program, which is exceptionally popular among the students. The club – usually consisting of 30 volunteers or more – started approximately five years ago. The students in that program were already learning to work with younger kids, and this was a natural extension of that.
“The volunteers pick a show, edit a junior version, assign roles, choreograph, stage scenes, and make sure everyone has a chance to shine,” Landa says. “They mount a full production with costumes, lights, microphones, and they do an amazing job. Each participant has a partner, and this is probably the coolest part of the whole thing. It is wonderful to see the volunteers develop a strong bond with the participants.”
Landa notes that a few students who were participants have grown up and are now in high school and have become volunteers themselves. The show is always done right before Thanksgiving, and it has turned into a huge homecoming of alumni volunteers.
“Graduates come to the show, sometimes even before they come home,” Sheehy says. “Volunteers have been shaped by the experience, whether it is deciding to follow a certain course of study in college or just learning to think more broadly.”
For her part, Landa acknowledges that the program has really changed her life. “These kids are amazing – how rich their lives are, and I’ve realized how much we need to listen to them,” she says.
In the spring, the Sharing the Arts club at Ridgewood High School also does a four-week workshop.
Matejka-Grossman describes the Sharing the Arts club as “an all-inclusive theater production.” And that does seem to be the best way to describe it. Everyone is included. Everyone has a chance to shine.