Friendship Programs Link Kids of All Abilities

By Mimi Slawoff

inclusive friendship programs

The adaptive ballet classes at Free 2 Be Me Dance include warm-up exercises, barre work and recitals. PHOTO COURTESY FREE 2 BE ME DANCE

Friendship is the magic that holds the power to lift us out of our isolation and sadness, to give us joy and a sense of meaningful human connection. And so, we raise the red flag when a child is constantly playing alone at recess. 

Coby Bird, who has autism, was one of those children. He didn’t know how to relate to his peers. Some of them shunned and bullied him, so his mother pulled him out of traditional school and home schooled him. When she enrolled him in The Miracle Project, an inclusive theater program for kids of all abilities, his social life turned around. “He started out as the shy kid in the back of the class, and now he is a professional actor,” says Rachael Bird, adding that Coby has an agent and has landed TV roles, most recently on “The Good Doctor.” 

The Miracle Project (www.themiracleproject.org) offers theater workshops to typical kids and youth with autism and other challenges. “The classes are fully inclusive, so actors are paired with each other. All of our shows and classes are mixed with those with and without disabilities,” says Elaine Hall, founder and creative director. 

Other L.A.-area programs also cite benefits in pairing students with and without disabilities – particularly that kids with disabilities improve language and social skills, while typical peers develop understanding and acceptance of differences. “We all want to be accepted for who we are and we all want friends,” says Barbara Palilis, executive director and founder of Circle of Friends – Path to Inclusion (www.circleofriends.org), which pairs two typical students with each child who has a disability. Students and educators undergo extensive training as the program is rolled out at schools over a three-year period. 

Colleen Perry, program director for Free 2 Be Me Dance (www.free2bemedance.com) has a waiting list of volunteers at her adaptive ballet school, which pairs kids with Down syndrome with typical kids. Sometimes Perry will pair the same students week to week if they’re a good fit. Other times, she switches it up. “I think it helps the dancers in terms of proper body position and emotion,” she says. 

Over at Spectrum Laboratory, a program dedicated to empowering artists on the autism spectrum, kids learn to create original films and music, and have access to one-on-one mentoring and internships. “We have peer mentorship and buddy up [students] with professionals who are artists,” says Jason Weissbrod, who co-founded Spectrum Laboratory (www.speclabs.org), with Garth Herberg. The two met while working at The Miracle Project.  

“Mentors are musicians, filmmakers and people that Garth and I have known through our connections in the industry,” says Weissbrod, a professional filmmaker, actor and special education teacher. 

Kids learn to write and record songs, act in films, and work on groundbreaking projects, such as “Use Your Imagination,” a virtual reality musical that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year. After working hard on creative projects with peers and mentors, the validation kids receive from a larger community viewing or listening to their creations can feel, well, magical. 

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