New inclusive children’s theater program debuts
By Deb Silverthorn
The Aaron Family JCC’s Junior Performing Arts Space is raising the curtain on a new inclusive youth program, partnering children and teens with diverse special needs with neurotypical “energy buddy” peers who gain leadership and mentoring skills.
Registration is open for Art with Heart’s premiere sessions, which will meet from 4:45 to 6 p.m. for six Mondays, beginning Jan. 22, at the J. The program will culminate with the “Art with Heart Broadway Revue” for friends and family.
“The JPAS programs are magic and in Art with Heart we’ll expand and share that magic even wider,” said Alise Robinson, JPAS producer and director. “Everyone deserves the opportunity to be seen, heard and appreciated.
“Theater, the arts and the way we share them impact lives, build bravery and bring courage to our young people,” she said. “Those tools along with building confidence are the key to inner strength and recognizing the compass of one’s worth. Whatever I do, I do for the betterment of our children.”
A member of The Schultz Family Israel Fellows, Robinson was inspired during a 2022 cohort leadership trip to Israel. Visiting the Krembo Wings program, a youth movement and leader in social change for children and youth with and without special needs, Robinson returned home wanting to bring such a melding of all community children to the J.
“Art with Heart, like all JPAS programs, will provide space for our children to feel safe, loved and loving,” said Robinson, working with Billy Lawley, Linda Leonard and Penny Richards, all theater veterans with longtime experience in Dallas’ theater community and with the J.
Natalie Waldman is a member of the J, the mother of three including a daughter with a chromosomal abnormality. JPAS participant Hailey Velevis wanted to build her mitzvah project around her beloved theater and desire to work with children with special needs. They combined to create Art with Heart.
“Our sons have been involved in many J programs and I have been searching for something that Katie could enjoy, grow through and appreciate,” said Waldman. “I contacted Artie Allen, then met with J leaders Tara Ohayon and Daniel Taylor. Our conversation began as Alise was making plans and Hailey had registered her idea too. I’m so excited for my daughter and all the children who I know will get so much out of this.”
“I’m proud and excited to be mentoring and helping launch this program,” said Hailey Velevis, who has appeared onstage in JPAS performances of “Matilda Jr.,” “Mary Poppins Jr.,” “Wizard of Oz Jr.,” “Jungle Book Jr.” and “Broadway Revues.”
“Theater has always had a special place in my heart,” said Velevis, “and I want everyone to have the chance to feel the same way.”
In addition to the Art with Heart inclusive program, JPAS’ year-round offerings include theater summer camps, productions, workshops, private lessons and visual arts; the JPAS social crew provides activities and opportunities to connect. All JPAS experiences hold mindfulness as a pillar with sessions beginning with meditation and self-reflection and ending with an appreciation circle.
Registration is also open for JPAS’ “The Lion King Broadway Revue,” with classes running from 4:30 to 7 p.m. beginning Wednesday, Jan. 24, with a showcase on March 6. “The Lion King Broadway Revue” was created after many more children than roles available showed interest in participating in the upcoming production of “Lion King Jr.,” on stage April 4, 7, 11 and 14.
Registration, with limited space, opens later this month for JPAS Camp StarQuest and Camp StarPower. Camp StarQuest’s musical theater and performing arts intensive teaches the fundamentals of theater, voice, music and dance while creating a staged musical production. Camp StarPower allows campers to create, write and perform in an original musical production.
That empowerment has motivated JPAS participants to reach for opportunities they might not have otherwise been exposed to.
Jacob Kaplan, a Fusion Academy alumna, is now a freshman at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. After appearing in JPAS productions of “Guys and Dolls,” “Seussical,” “Aladdin” and “Willy Wonka,” he tips his cap to Robinson.
“Alise works so well with children,” said Kaplan, who learned about lighting design, his focus now, while at the J, where he served as a lighting designer. “You learn to grow as a performer and as a person. To do that connected to our Jewish community is very special.”
Robinson, who led the J’s program to recognition as “best theater classes for aspiring actors” in Dallas Child Magazine, had previously co-authored the “Space Craze” children’s book series and won more than 45 national toy design and production awards. She is a certified mindfulness teacher. From the start of her career as a preschool teacher she has made caring about young people her priority.
“Everything we do here is to help children rise to their own personal greatness,” she said, “to provide them with wings on their back.”
For more details, or to register for JPAS programming, visit jccdallas.org/arts/performing-arts, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 214-239-7140.