Penn State performing arts organization gives voice to those with special needs

Lauren Ingram
November 28, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Taylor Balliet can say with certainty that Harmony, a performing arts program at Penn State, saved her life.

Balliet, a junior in the Schreyer Honors College majoring in secondary social studies education, is president of the student organization, which helps individuals of all ages — with and without special needs — to socialize with peers and build confidence while learning musical skills, acting and dance in a welcoming and inclusive environment.

Through her own diagnosis of bipolar disorder during her freshman year and ongoing experiences with severe hearing loss, Balliet relied on her Harmony family for unconditional friendship and comfort.

“The hugs and kind words from Harmony members meant everything to me, and I don’t know what I would have done without them. That support ultimately helped connect me with a therapist and get diagnosed,” Balliet said. “Harmony is a safe place that all of us come to be ourselves, let our guards down and have fun. Whether you’re a student or a volunteer, we all bring good intentions and take something positive away.”

Today, more than 30 Penn State students participate in the program along with two dozen local community members between the ages of 4 and 42, many of whom have special needs such as autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. Children with and without special needs also can participate in a new offshoot program called “Har-MINIs.”

Founded in 2013 by a Penn State student, Harmony pairs individuals with college student mentors to form friendships and work together to prepare songs and dances for an end-of-semester performance. This fall, the cast has been busy rehearsing songs like “Do You Want to Build a Snowman,” “Let It Go,” and other tunes from the animated Disney movie “Frozen” that they will perform during a winter showcase on Dec. 2 at Schwab Auditorium on the University Park campus.

Taylor Balliet

Taylor Balliet, left, poses for a photograph with Harmony cast member Haley Smith prior to rehearsal at Schwab Auditorium.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

With a motto of “where imagination has a voice,” Harmony encourages participants to speak up and sing out in a playful and low-pressure environment.

“Music, dance and drama help people of all ages with a variety of special needs express themselves and their emotions,” said Katie Hoffman, club adviser and associate professor of special education in Penn State’s College of Education. “Along with having fun, our goal is to help our students improve their communication and self-expression, develop emotional awareness, and promote inclusion within our Harmony family and throughout the University. That’s why we’re open to anyone who wants to join.”

To get ready for their winter show, the cast convenes every Monday in the HUB-Robeson Center for rehearsals, vocal warm-ups, games, and acting and singing lessons.

For Balliet, Monday rehearsals are the best part of her week.

“Too often, people with special needs feel isolated when they leave school and lose opportunities to socialize outside of their homes,” she said. “The most rewarding thing is watching our students come out of their shells and make friends. As the semester progresses, I witness people finding their voices, talking more and talking louder.”

Students from the College of Education and College of Nursing lead the weekly rehearsals, while student volunteers from a variety of majors and backgrounds are on hand to give personalized attention to participants and make special accommodations to help them feel comfortable and confident on stage. For example, the club finds creative ways for students in wheelchairs to participate in dance scenes and adapts scripts and song lyrics for those with speech disorders.

Balliet says it was a happy accident that she discovered Harmony at an Involvement Fair her freshman year, but that it’s become a home away from home — for both the volunteers and students.

According to Lavender, a Harmony student who will play Elsa in the upcoming show, “Everyone is accepted at Harmony and is fully included. It is great to feel so supported.”

Harmony cast

The entire Harmony cast gathered on the stage at Schwab Auditorium to begin rehearsal for their end-of-semester showcase featuring music from ‘Frozen’.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

As part of its mission, the student organization strives to increase awareness of all types of diversity on campus, including physical and intellectual disabilities, and to promote acceptance and inclusion.

Damon Sims, vice president for Student Affairs, says he’s proud of the work Harmony is doing to have a positive impact throughout the University and local community.

“The students and faculty involved with Harmony are living Penn State’s service mission, while also helping people connect and form relationships with those whom they might not otherwise have the opportunity to meet. This important work helps lay the foundation for a more welcoming and accepting campus environment for all,” Sims said.

Each semester, Harmony’s executive team collaborates with local organizations such as LifeLink PSU, The Arc of Centre County, Strawberry Fields, and groups throughout the University. In the future, Balliet says she would like the club to continue to expand its offerings and to serve as a model for similar student organizations at other universities.

For her, this goal hits close to home.

“My teenage brother is autistic, and I wish he had access to a program like this,” she said. “I want people to see what can happen when we give everyone a chance to participate. Harmony’s success gives me hope that we could be a catalyst for similar programs where people like my brother can show their creative sides, find their voices, and be proud of who they are.”

Community members are invited to attend Harmony’s performance of “Frozen” from 6:15 to 7:15 p.m. on Dec. 2 at Schwab Auditorium at University Park. Tickets are not required, and the event is free and open to the public. For more information, visit Harmony’s website or email harmony.psu@gmail.com

  • lavender capenos

    Lavender Capenos is playing the role of Elsa in the Harmony production of ‘Frozen’ premiering Dec. 2 at Schwab Auditorium.

    IMAGE: Patrick Mansell
Last Updated December 05, 2018