Performing arts club creates ‘a whole new world’ for students with special needs

April 27, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For weeks, the cast of Harmony, a performing arts program at Penn State, has been busy rehearsing songs like “A Whole New World,” “A Friend Like Me,” “Prince Ali” and other tunes from the animated Disney movie “Aladdin” for its spring showcase.

Since 2013, Harmony has been helping individuals with special needs to socialize with peers and build confidence while learning musical skills, acting and dance in a welcoming and inclusive environment. 

But when social distancing guidelines due to the coronavirus pandemic made continuing in-person rehearsals impossible, Leila Genkin, president of the student organization who is minoring in theatre, knew the show still had to go on. 

“We really wanted to return to a level of normalcy, but in a way we could all be safe. That structure is so important for our cast and something that’s been lost,” Genkin said. “It can be easy to feel that everything is bleak right now, but we get so much joy from being in Harmony. It’s palpable. We wanted to put that back into their lives in any way we could.”

“It can be easy to feel that everything is bleak right now, but we get so much joy from being in Harmony. We wanted to put that back into their lives in any way we could.”

More than 60 Penn State students participate in the program along with 55 local community members between the ages of 4 and 45 — the cast of the show — many of whom have special needs such as autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.

With the transition to remote learning for the remainder of the spring semester, the student organization decided to move their weekly Monday rehearsals to Zoom. On April 26, in lieu of a live performance, the organization gathered together on Zoom to watch a special video showcase featuring video clips submitted by cast members singing and dancing and a special send-off for Harmony’s graduating Penn State seniors.

“After we all had the chance to process the situation, we realized why we’re here. What’s important is our cast and giving them this opportunity to shine,” said Genkin, who also is graduating in May with a degree in risk management. “Having this one hour a week has been so uplifting for everyone. When it came down to it, we knew we had to provide that positive time both for our students and ourselves.”

Each week, Allyson Stump and Kaylie Shojaie, two students from the College of Health and Human Development, have continued to lead the rehearsals, while student volunteers representing nearly every college log on to the video conferencing platform to provide additional support for cast members who are able to attend virtually.

While managing a virtual rehearsal with more than 100 people simultaneously singing and dancing in their living rooms has had its challenges — dances must be mirrored during lessons so the cast can learn the choreography and the “raise hand” feature in Zoom has become a lifesaver — there have been unexpected benefits, too. For the first time, siblings, parents and even pets are making cameo performances during rehearsals. 

“Harmony is a community. During times of need, communities become even more important,” said Katie Hoffman, club adviser and teaching professor of special education in Penn State’s College of Education. “For so many of us at Penn State and within the community, ‘HarMonday’ is our favorite day of the week. We’re grateful technology has been a way for us to all to still be together to celebrate each other.”

“Harmony is a community. During times of need, communities become even more important.”

Genkin says the positive feedback from cast members and parents, as well as the resilience and camaraderie displayed by the executive board and student volunteers, has been heartwarming. 

“We've always had the philosophy that everybody has a role, everybody has a line and a place in our organization,” Genkin said. “We don’t want anybody to be a background character.” 

Even virtually, the club is doing its best to find creative ways for cast members to participate, including by adapting dance scenes for those in wheelchairs and scripts and song lyrics for those with speech disorders.

A group of Penn State students at the Penn State Lion Shrine.

Harmony's executive team, including Leila Genkin (center), at the Penn State Lion Shrine. 

IMAGE: Courtesy of Leila Genkin

This spring, Harmony earned Penn State’s Outstanding Student Organization Award for its contributions to the University and local community.

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. Each semester, Harmony’s executive team collaborates with local organizations such as LifeLink PSU, The Arc of Centre County, Strawberry Fields and other groups throughout the University.

“Each week, our students walk in — and now log in — with smiles on their faces, and you can really see how important it is to them,” Genkin said. “We hear from parents about the impact Harmony is having on their children’s lives, like they’re doing better in school and their reading levels and social skills have improved. It’s really rewarding to see that we as Penn State students can make this real impact outside of our University.”

As the curtain falls on her senior year, Genkin never imagined she wouldn’t be on stage with the Harmony cast as she ends her time as president of the organization that she’s been part of for four years.

“I’ve done a lot of reflecting and I think finding a way to give our cast and students that moment of togetherness and celebration is still just as important — if not more important in these difficult circumstances,” she said. “Even though our plans are a little different now, we're still making a difference in people’s lives and that’s the goal. It’s bittersweet, but I can still get satisfaction in all of that. Harmony has been the best thing I’ve done at Penn State.”

“We Are” stories

The “We Are” spirit is perhaps more important than ever before, and Penn Staters everywhere are coming together in new and amazing ways. During these challenging times, our community is continuing to realize Penn State’s commitment to excellence through acts of collaboration, thoughtfulness and kindness. As President Eric Barron has written on Digging Deeper, this truly is a “We Are” moment — and we want to hear your “We Are” stories.

Visit to share how you or other Penn Staters are supporting each other to overcome the collective challenges presented by the novel coronavirus. We are!


Last Updated April 15, 2021