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Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty of  Music
July 29, 2014
 
 
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Arts Express: Creative Expression and Supportive Community for Children with Special Needs

By Elizabeth Mitchell, MMT, MTA, Part-time Instructor, Department of Music Therapy

Dec 13/11

Registration for Music 380e, the academic course associated with Arts Express, begins in early Spring. Contact Debra Martz Melanson for more details: dmartzme@wlu.ca

 

On July 15, 2011, forty-two children and their camp leaders, students from WLU and UW, danced, acted, and sang on stage at Laurier’s Maureen Forrester Recital Hall, marking the grand finale of an intensely creative week together. Assisted by volunteers and workers, these impassioned performers concluded their recital by singing of community and environmental responsibility. Excitement and nervous energy were palpable in the air.

For eighteen years, the Arts Express camp has made a profound difference to children in this community while challenging and inspiring the university students who take its affiliated course: MU380e - Creative Arts for Children with Special Needs. This spring course presents theory based in the creative arts therapies along with facilitation strategies for working with individuals with special needs. Experiential learning is emphasized as students engage directly with art, music, dance, and drama, and then put knowledge into practice as camp leaders.

Camp culminates with the above mentioned recital. As the final song came to a close, I allowed my broad gaze upon this artistic whole to focus in on the many individual stories being written in that moment, stories that spoke of transformation.

One thirteen-year-old girl, with a gentle personality and a diagnosis of Down syndrome, had earlier decided that she was too scared to perform. Now, beaming, she waved to her parents. The tears in their eyes were visible; their daughter had never before had the confidence to walk onto a stage. She would remember this day and build on her success for years to come. 

Earlier in the performance, a ten-year-old boy had gone to the microphone and led his group in song. This child’s diagnosis of autism makes the sensory experience of performing extraordinarily challenging. After the recital his Mom too would be in tears, explaining that Arts Express allows others to see her son as capable and creative.

Each MU380e student had come into the course with a different level of experience in the arts. One dynamic young woman, who had reflected earlier that the course had helped her “re-discover her creativity”, now took a strong leadership role in acting on stage. Another student would express after the recital: “My week was filled with so many emotions and discoveries. This was one of the most amazing experiences of my life”.

The sustaining heartbeat of the Arts Express program lies in community. Run through Laurier’s faculty of music, course instructors are drawn from Laurier, the University of Waterloo and Conestoga College. KidsAbility supports Arts Express with a beautiful venue in which to run the camp and assistance from skilled therapeutic recreation staff.

Ultimately, it is the campers that make this program as inspiring as it is, children who face and overcome barriers to artistic expression with the support of family and friends. One family wrote: “Our kids will remember Arts Express as the highlight of their summer. Our son’s self-esteem is very low and he doesn’t really feel as though he belongs anywhere these days. He came home very happy everyday this week. We haven’t seen him this happy and relaxed in a very long time.”

Registration for MU380e begins in early spring. Contact Debra Martz Melanson (dmartzme@wlu.ca) for more information. 

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