Student volunteers live in ‘Harmony’

Jessica Buterbaugh
April 20, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In the Disney movie “The Little Mermaid,” Ariel sang, “You’re you, I’m me. Together we can live in harmony.” The song says that each person is unique and special, and that we should celebrate our differences — together. At Penn State, a new student organization is doing just that.

For the volunteers of Harmony, a multidisciplinary performing arts student organization on the University Park campus, those simple lyrics mirror their mission to serve children and young adults with special needs from local communities, showing that we all can live together harmoniously.

“We are all people, we just do things in different ways. I have a disability but I don’t use that word. I use ‘differently-abled’ because almost everybody I know, including the kids in Harmony, they’re all able to do everything that somebody else can do. They just do it differently.”

-- Kaity Gonzalez, Harmony president

“It enriches my life,” said Katie Hoffman, associate professor of special education and adviser for Harmony. “It’s one of the best parts of my Mondays. And when I go home and I talk about it with my 5-year-old daughter, she says, ‘Why didn’t you take me? I love going to Harmony,’ and she lights up.”

Made up of nearly 20 student volunteers including an executive governing board and instructors, Harmony welcomes individuals with special needs to campus to participate in an arts-driven club that aims to build confidence and foster social growth. While the group is open to students ages 10 to 21, the majority of the students are between their teen years and 21, a critical time for many students with disabilities, Hoffman said.

“The programs that are offered for students with special needs when they age out of school are somewhat limited,” she said. “Harmony allows them to work with college-aged students; thus, they are working and socializing with their same-age peers. That’s an important part of Harmony, that we provide additional activities for those who may or may not still be of school age.”

Transitioning from a student to an adult can be a very challenging time, especially for an individual with special needs, Hoffman said. By introducing students with special needs to singing, dancing and acting, Harmony encourages independence and works with students to develop important life skills.

“We really focus on the process as opposed to the result,” Harmony president Kaity Gonzalez said. “My goal personally in helping these kids is to help them with confidence because that is something I find a lot of the students really struggle with — students with and without special needs. It’s not only students with special needs. When you’re young, confidence is something that you have to build up.”

It is not unusual for Harmony students to attend weekly meetings — which also serve as rehearsals for the end-of-semester showcase — very shy and timid. Students sometimes feel uncomfortable standing in front of the other students and might not want to participate in reading lines or dancing, Gonzalez said.

“We’ve heard countless times students say, ‘I don’t really know how to do this,’” she said. “And we say that’s OK and tell them they can hold their scripts because when they get on that stage, it doesn’t matter if they have their script or not. The fact that they’re on stage and got out of their comfort shell enough to get on stage is such amazing progress in my eyes.”

Focusing on progress and growth is one of the most important aspects of Harmony, Hoffman said. “While there is this end showcase, if a line is missed, it’s OK,” she said. “A line was missed at the last showcase and everybody just sort of froze. But then, the students figured out to just keep going, that it was OK that a mistake was made. And that is what we want to achieve — for them to learn that everybody makes mistakes.

“It really is that process of working together,” she said. “We create something, yes, but what’s important is that we work together.”

Harmony instructor Gavin Calgaro has been volunteering with Harmony for the past two years and is amazed at how much the students have excelled.

“I see students that in the beginning were fairly nonverbal and were more hesitant to participate,” he said. “Now, just a few semesters later, they come and are excited and willing to do whatever we throw at them.”

Calgaro, a junior majoring in childhood and early adolescent education (PK-4 option) with a minor in special education, serves as one of two instructors for the group, a role that requires him to prepare lesson plans for each rehearsal and act as a co-director for the final showcase. He and his co-instructor Katrina Koch also must differentiate their instructional approaches for each rehearsal in order to manage the students’ different behaviors and make adaptations that work for all students.

“It gives us all an opportunity to get away from our everyday lives at Penn State and work on something that is a little bit bigger than ourselves.”

-- Gavin Calgaro, Harmony instructor

“It is great experience,” Calgaro said. “There are a few (volunteers) that are education majors that are gaining really valuable, unequivocal opportunities through Harmony. But the reason I love Harmony is because it combines all of my interests — I want to be a teacher and I’m also minoring in theater so Harmony is a perfect fit for me.

“It gives us all an opportunity to get away from our everyday lives at Penn State and work on something that is a little bit bigger than ourselves,” he said.

It’s not just education majors who are attracted to Harmony. The organization has volunteers from multiple majors, including science, math and accounting, and nobody receives preferential treatment based on their major of study.

“If someone is in special education, while that is great and can help them, we want to give equal opportunity to students from any major,” said Gonzalez, a senior who will graduate with a degree in forensic science this spring, explaining that Harmony has close to a one-to-one student/volunteer ratio and volunteers are selected on a first-come, first-served basis once they meet certain requirements.

Although Harmony primarily serves students with special needs, it is open to all young adult students. The group’s mission includes students with and without special needs because when students with special needs graduate and go out into the world, they will be interacting with all types of individuals, Gonzalez said.

“We are all people, we just do things in different ways,” she said. “I have a disability but I don’t use that word. I use ‘differently-abled’ because almost everybody I know, including the kids in Harmony, they’re all able to do everything that somebody else can do. They just do it differently.”

Watching the talent of the Harmony students prepare for their next showcase, “Hairspray,” solidifies that every student has the ability to perform. Together with Penn State volunteers, the students have learned songs, dances and select scenes from the popular Tony Award-winning musical.

“Every rehearsal takes place on a stage,” Calgaro said. “So we get to use theatrical terminology and the kids get to learn about lighting elements and the different sides of the stage.”

Most importantly, the students get to interact with Penn State students and build those social relationships, Hoffman’s favorite part. The students can be themselves in an environment that is welcoming and supportive.

“That’s the whole purpose of Harmony — to bring everybody together,” Hoffman said.

Harmony will perform its semester showcase at 4 p.m. Sunday, April 24, in the Flex Theater in the HUB-Robeson Center.

Last Updated April 20, 2016