A creative outlet for people with Down syndrome

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- When a State College musical theatre group composed of children and young adults with Down syndrome gave its inaugural performance in April, it was to a packed house and a standing-ovation finale.

"There are no words to describe the feeling of watching these young people perform," said Krista Wilkinson, professor of communication sciences and disorders at Penn State. "The standing ovation at the end of the show said it all. People were in tears."

After four months of rehearsals, the performance was held April 21 in Kern Building on Penn State’s University Park campus. Plans currently are under way to organize and perform another show this fall.

The "For Good Performance Troupe" was founded by Wilkinson as a nonwork-related endeavor, and is co-sponsored by the Centre County Down Syndrome Society (CCDSS) and the Omega Phi Alpha sorority at Penn State. The April event included 10 performers between the ages of 8 and 23, as well as five community participants between the ages of 11 and 16 who are nondisabled and who shared their musical theatre experience. The theme of the inaugural show was "friendship" and included the songs "Hakuna Matata" from "The Lion King;" "You've Got a Friend in Me" from "Toy Story;" "We're All in This Together" from "High School Musical;" and "For Good" from "Wicked."

"I started the troupe because, over the past 25 years, I have worked professionally with folks with Down syndrome and have heard again and again from them that they would like to be part of musical theater," said Wilkinson, who is the current secretary for the CCDSS. "My efforts with the CCDSS reflect my ongoing commitment to serving individuals with Down syndrome, which is a commitment that also drives my research agenda."

Wilkinson's research includes studies of early communication and language in learners with developmental and intellectual disabilities, including Down syndrome.

"Clearly, the many benefits of musical theater experience extend to all participants -- from improving reading abilities [to learn the song lyrics] to honing music and rhythm skills to refining social and self-advocacy skills, such as those required to get up in front of a crowd and do something outside one’s comfort zone," said Wilkinson.

Whitney Schmutter, a communication sciences and disorders undergraduate student and member of Omega Phi Alpha, was Wilkinson's right hand, helping with everything from teaching participants the words to the songs, to making sure the troupe had a place to rehearse and perform.

"I was interested in doing this because I love nothing more than to work with kids, and I think that working with them through music is an extremely powerful thing," she said. "I watched these kids come out of their shells over the course of the semester and I am so proud of all that they accomplished."

Schmutter said that the experience has influenced her education and career goals.

"As a communication sciences and disorders major, I am going to be working with children for the rest of my life, many of whom have speech impediments, autism, or other types of developmental delays that prevent them from gaining speech properly," she said. "Working with children such as those in the For Good Performance Troupe just reinforced my decision to become a speech-language pathologist. I see firsthand that my actions really do make a difference, which has always been my ultimate goal."

Schmutter isn't the only one who was positively affected by the experience.

"I chose to do this service because a lot of times people don't realize how amazing these kids are and what they can do," said a community participant.

“I think it was one of the best 'feel-good’ experiences I’ve ever had," said the father of another community participant.

Most importantly, the experience profoundly impacted the children and young adult performers with Down syndrome.

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Last Updated June 04, 2012