I realize that not everyone can volunteer on Saturday or Sunday. Some people want to chill with family and friends on the weekends and others have to work. So for all those with weekend restrictions my next few volunteer journals will be weekday activities.
This week I was lucky enough to accompany my lovely new friend Shelley Pack, famous for being one half of the very funny Keep It Green Girls on Planet Green, to volunteer for The Miracle Project. “The Miracle Project™ is a theatre and film arts program for children with special needs and their typically developing siblings and peers.”
I met Shelley on Monday evening outside the community center where the rehearsal would take place. She explained to me that most of the children we would be working with had autism and the severity of their symptoms of autism would vary. The Miracle Project uses theatre games, rehearsal techniques, positive interaction and reinforcement to help these kids express themselves.
In the hallway of the community center Shelley said hello to one of her most cherished friends Adam*. Adam has limited communication skills. He said, “Hi Shelley” and held her hand gently to his face. Shelley introduced me at which point he turned carefully towards me and said, “Hi Raegan.” Then he turned back to Shelley and began to hum notes, no more words were spoken, just notes. “He’s excited to sing and perform,” Shelley told me before Adam was led away.
Why couldn’t Adam continue speaking to us? What is autism? It’s frequently mentioned in the news, but rarely explained. It’s a difficult disorder to describe so I wrote my cousin Dr. Courtney Burnette, a clinical psychologist with the Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD, for short) at Vanderbilt Medical Center for a clear explanation. She emailed me back,
“Children who have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder have varying degrees of impairment three main areas: communication and language, social interaction abilities, and restricted interests or repetitive behaviors. The specific behaviors can vary widely from person to person, and two people with the same diagnosis might seem very different. Autism spectrum disorders occur in as many as 1 in 150 individuals, is 3-4 times more common in boys than girls, and occurs across all racial, ethnic, and social groups.”
The Miracle Project offers children with autism and their siblings a safe haven from what can be a harsh and judgmental world. Shelley related the story of one student in the project who is picked on terribly at school. He is a high functioning child with autism, so he attends a regular school where he is made fun of by the other students. When he comes to the project after school he constantly checks with her and other volunteers to see if he’s doing everything right because he’s so insecure due to daily torment. Shelley’s eyes fill with tears as she recounts his anguish, as do mine. We were both picked on in school so we can relate, but it seems especially cruel to antagonize a student who bravely deals with challenges that most children could not imagine. But a hard heart never goes unchecked - because these bullies persecute this child with autism they will never have the pleasure of knowing him or learning from him. Cruelty always proves to be the greatest handicap for it is more limiting than any physical disorder.
Before the children arrived at rehearsal all the volunteers gathered in a circle. We set goals to accomplish and introduced ourselves if we are new to the project. I am welcomed eagerly and I notice as I look around the group that there is more than one famous actor involved with this charity.
The children arrive and rehearsal begins. Each volunteer is paired up with one or two kids to help them learn songs for the upcoming Miracle Project show. I don’t know the songs or the choreography. Normally I would feel monumentally self-conscious about this, but the kids somehow put you at ease. They don’t mind if you don’t know it. They are just glad you’re here. The songs are simple and easy to pick up and soon we are all singing together. There is a refreshing lack of self-consciousness or censorship in the group. Did I get the notes right? It doesn’t matter. I missed that move in the choreography! So what. Did you have fun?
The children are intuitive, loving and trusting. I am asked many questions and hugged frequently. I am paired with two children. One knows the routine perfectly and the other, Jane*, decides to run out of the room. No worries, I am told, and another volunteer brings her back. I concentrate more on Jane, we work on the choreography and she eventually refocuses and smiles.
At the end of practice the kids’ parents come into the auditorium and watch the final run through. They seem to really enjoy the show. After the last song we all stream down into the seats to mingle. The volunteers are repeatedly thanked. The parents say the program has allowed their kids to “come out of a shell,” and that “Mondays are [their] favorite day of the week.”
*Named changed to protect privacy.
Special Thanks to Dr. Courtney Burnette for consulting on this blog.