April 10, 2017

It's the day before the big show, and Cadie Albin is drawing applause from fellow cast members as she pirouettes and pops to the music playing on the loudspeaker. WhyArts artist Courtney Stein is bopping her head in appreciation of the tune as she, her fellow WhyArts volunteers and members of the MMI staff coordinate a big dance number.

Cadie and her fellow performers are participants in the Munroe-Meyer Institute's first Winter Theater Camp, held in collaboration with WhyArts, an arts organization based at the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center. This rehearsal was followed by a public performance of "Join Us in the Jungle," a show adapted by the MMI performers from a children's book, at the J.P. Lord School gymnasium.

"She's loving it," said Cadie's mother, Cheri Albin.

The collaboration, featuring 25 performers age 6 to 24 with disabilities and complex health care needs, is part of a re-energized outreach effort by new MMI Director Karoly Mirnics, M.D., Ph.D.

"Art has a very strong influence on the brain," he said. "This is an activity that we believed would enrich the lives of individuals with various intellectual and developmental disabilities. Some individuals, who were shy and didn't want to step on stage, came out of their shells and, with the help of these artists, discovered a new dimension of themselves. These events are routinely part of the lives of typically developing individuals, but the availability of similar performance opportunities is quite limited for individuals with special needs."

"There's been a lot of creative energy," said Michael Crawford, Ph.D., director of recreation therapy. "If I could keep these WhyArtists with me full-time, I would. The energy and the ideas they bring have been great, and they've done a wonderful job of tailoring the story to our needs."

WhyArts Director Carolyn Anderson praised the volunteer artists and called the experience awesome.

"We are thrilled about working with Munroe-Meyer on this project," Anderson said. "We are very passionate about the same audience. We work with underserved populations, and people with disabilities are a major focus."

On the night of the show, the gym is filled with more than 150 family and friends, MMI staff from other departments and members of the community. High points of the show draw sustained applause - solo speeches by performers such as Daniel Holm, a limbo dance down the center aisle, dance numbers and, of course, the big finale. As the show ends, performers leave the stage to pull family members up to dance with them - a final burst of fun in a wonderful evening.

"It was amazing," said Beth Wakehouse, mother of performer KellyLynn Wakehouse. She is one of several family members gathered around a beaming KellyLynn. "And it gave so many of the different kids a different way to speak and to be able to participate in things that you generally don't see them do in the community.

"She was really apprehensive about doing this, but she's loved it," Wakehouse said. "She can't wait to sign up for the next one. She's in the process of getting a communication device, so she said next time she'd like to do a speaking role and try that out. I'm glad to see her willing to pursue even more things."

Dr. Mirnics has his eye on "more things," as well, calling the camp a successful trial run.

"We want to continue this amazing partnership with WhyArts, and we would love to grow and have a multiyear plan in place with an idea that we would engage visual arts, performing arts and many other modalities," he said.

Future collaborations could include other arts and theater organizations, as well, and MMI's arts collaborations could expand beyond the boundaries of Omaha.

"The experiences we develop at MMI have to be disseminated," he said. "The common thread among our partners must be that we care, and that we want to create something new and lasting, and that we want to enhance the lives of individuals with disabilities and complex health care needs."