Hempfield's All Kids Theater reaches out to special-needs children, too

Mary Pickels
| Sunday, July 6, 2014, 11:15 p.m.

Students listened to the hushed tones of “The Berenstain Bears Get Stage Fright” during story time at a summer camp session at Hempfield's All Kids Theater.

Later, they shook maracas and clacked rhythm sticks in a free-for-all band.

The term “all kids” in the group's name refers to any child, including those with special needs, who is interested in music, theater and the arts, said pediatrician Jodi Jackson.

She and her husband, clinical social worker Ben Yaroch, bought and renovated a former church along Route 136 in Darragh last year.

They and Mia Szumetz, owner and director of Maestro Minds School of Music, are the nonprofit's principal partners.

Over the next hour, the children learned the definitions of “dialogue,” “projection” and “improv.”

They put on plastic construction hats and marched to the song, “Never Smile At a Crocodile.”

Some sang along; others observed.

When one boy walked away and climbed onto his mother's lap, Dr. Jackson gently held out her hand. With his mother's encouragement, the boy rejoined the group.

Szumetz's school is in the theater.

“Our sons were involved with (Szumetz's) program, and they loved music and theater,” said Jackson of Jeannette.

“We wanted to see the same things offered to (our) boys offered to children with developmental disabilities,” Yaroch said.

The goal, Szumetz said, is to eventually offer year-round classes for “all kids” — those without or with disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome or physical and intellectual challenges.

“I care for many children with a wide spectrum of physical, developmental and behavioral needs. These families' lives revolve around continuous support of their children's basic needs, including therapies, educational plans/supports, as well as numerous doctor visits,” Jackson said.

That population of children may have limited opportunities to participate in the performing arts, she said.

When Malka Rubin's family attended a spring performance at the 101-seat theater, the 8-year-old surprised them by playing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on the piano.

“We didn't know she could do that,” said her mother, Michele Rubin of Export.

Her daughter is on the autism spectrum and has some difficulty in socializing, she said.

“We thought theater might be a good way for her to express herself,” Rubin said.

Elaine Strange said her daughter, Jenna, 8, is high-functioning on the autism spectrum.

After just two classes, the little girl who doesn't sing at home or in the car belted out a song from the popular Disney musical “Frozen” in front of a small audience.

“It's hard to find a place for her where she fits in. She just fits here, and she loves it,” said Strange of South Huntingdon.

Performing can help to teach emotion recognition and expression, as well as eye contact, and ease social interaction, according to the theater's website.

Verbal and picture prompts can be used to lead children from one activity to the next.

Five teachers are on staff, including Szumetz. Some volunteers assist them.

“We wanted to make sure that if we did this that we had the right people. I'm there for any medical issues,” Jackson said.

The theater's six-week summer camp is held on Monday evenings. Fall classes and a holiday production are planned.

Funding has come through yard sales, a coffeehouse and donations to online funding site gofundme.com. The partners intend to pursue grants and aim to keep costs low.

“If I can secure more funding, we'd like to have adaptive equipment for kids with hearing or visual impairments,” Jackson said.

The classes offer students a safe environment where they can develop friendships and boost their self-esteem, said Yaroch, who works with at-risk children.

“We want this to be meaningful and important. We also want it to be fun,” he said.

Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com.

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