Youth Singers offers children with disabilities more than a place to belong

Rosy cheeks and children’s grins spread ear to ear are carried down the hallway on a cheerful tune of laughter as they greet their parents. For 10 weeks, these kids are part of a pilot program for special needs children through the Youth Singers of Calgary.

“Most of the kids wanted to be on stage yesterday,” says Amanda Croteau, director of the Youth Singers’ latest initiative, Special Talents in Arts and Recreation — known as STAR.

For several years, Shirley Penner, CEO and artistic director of Youth Singers, wanted to dedicate a performing arts program to children with cognitive and behavioural disabilities. But a lack of financial support and space at their downtown location prevented her from broaching the idea any further.

When Youth Singers moved in 2009 from the downtown location to a finished warehouse in Calgary’s southeast, Penner had the opportunity to take the necessary steps to make her dreams of bringing a special needs program to Youth Singers a reality.

“There was no way before we moved into our own building that we could think about starting a program like this,” Penner says.

Last year, Penner received funding to undergo a study to determine the need for a program like this within the city. After a year of research, she realized that her initial feeling had been correct and that there was no similar program in Calgary. Once funding was secured at the end of last year, STAR was born. 

“We want to make a community name for this community of kids.”
– Jennifer Morton

In January, Youth Singers began the pilot of the two trial STAR programs.

“In each pilot we are learning what works and what doesn’t,” says Croteau.

STAR will be offered to special needs children, eight to 15. The accessible program, which launches officially in the fall, aims to provide a creative, yet structured performing arts environment for those involved.

Described as the first program of its kind in Calgary, STAR’s trial programs have been a learning experience for the directors and the children alike.

“We don’t have anything to compare to. We are that group for other groups to learn from. Not only are we working with children and giving them a brand new program, but we are also giving the community a brand new program,” Croteau says.

As a Youth Singers veteran and with professional experience at the Special Olympics, Croteau has high expectations for the children she works with.

When some new children joined the trial program, Croteau says, “They wanted to know, ‘What do we get to wear and what do we get to show our family and friends?’”

Jennifer Morton, STAR’s program manager, says, “Children that are facing additional challenges sometimes beat all of us in the enthusiasm game.”

Morton is a parent of a child with special needs and she recognizes the need for such a program that encourages a sense of belonging and enhances a child’s personal development.

“The kids put a lot of pressure on themselves, they don’t want to just sit around and play silly games, so why not share that?” she says.

STAR is slated to officially launch in September and the organizers hope to run several 10- to 12-week programs throughout the year.

“We want to make a community name for this community of kids,” Morton says.

jsymborski@cjournal.ca