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Joshua's Stage camp brings theater to kids with special needs

Nicole Villalpando
Executive Director Joshua Levy engages campers in dramatic exercises during Joshua's Stage camp. [AMERICAN-STATESMAN 2018]

The kids at Joshua's Stage summer camp are busy creating a show. They will write the script with the help of camp counselors and perform it in front of friends and family at the end of camp. It's a show that never goes off perfectly, but everyone participates.



Joshua's Stage summer camp specializes in kids with special needs. Kids on the autism spectrum, including those who are nonverbal, have attended, as have kids with attention deficit disorder, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and learning and developmental differences.

It's become a haven for kids who sometimes haven't had a camp experience, or have tried but been asked to leave when their needs are considered too high or behavior considered too disruptive.

The secret is the 3-campers-to-1-instructor ratio and the carefully managed flow from one activity to another, as well as allowing kids to be who they are, while redirecting them in positive ways toward what the group is doing.

"We meet their needs," says executive director Joshua Levy, who worked in special education in schools before starting Joshua's Stage in 2016. "We've not told a child or family we are not able to accommodate them.

"We understand and want to work with their child. Let's make it work."

Now the program has summer camps, after-school care, and playtime at the Toybrary. Levy also consults with a school in Liverpool, England, which is working with his Creative Outlet Method of bringing theater to kids.

Last summer during a transitional activity, the campers and staff sing, "Who took the cookie from the cookie jar?" Then each one points to another camper.

Lupita Manning, 9, points to instructor Josh Dunkin, who is singing, and he says, "Who me? Couldn't be? It was Austin."

And Austin Eppes, 8, points to himself. "I don't want to blame people. I ate the cookie!"

But Kaleb Commodore, 8, pipes up: "It was me!"

The unexpected happens, and that's OK. Sometimes a kid wanders to another side of the room and bounces on some cushions. No problem. Instructor Brooke Conway goes over to sit with him and redirect him back to the circle. Sometimes a kid gets angry and starts to hit or wants to leave. "We want you to be safe," she says calmly. "We love you."

The campers move on to another game: Who and What is on TV? Each one gives suggestions as they watch their instructors and campers act out the silliness. There are a lot of Mario Bros. characters in this game.

Now we've moved on to making invisible soup. All kinds of things go inside: Spaghetti, yum. Cucumber, yum. Socks, yuck. "Say goodbye to dirty socks," Conway says.

Lupita asks, "We didn't put the spoons out?" "Remember, they're imaginary," Conway says.

After it's over, Lupita wants us to know, "That was pretend. It was fake."

"What do you mean?" Levy asks. "I'm really full."

They then play "follow the leader": One camper does a movement and they all follow that movement. Another camper has to figure out who is the leader as the movement changes every few seconds.

And then snack time comes, along with art. "I like it when you get to draw," says Austin.

"I like spending time with my friends," Liam Ankeney, 9, says.

"My favorite thing is the plays," Lupita says. "We're having another play on Friday!"

Friday is definitely the best day. "We get to do this movie and get toys!" Kiah Slinger, 10, says.

Joshua's Stage

For kids with special needs in grades K-5

1 p.m.-5 p.m. weekly June 3-June 28; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. July 8-Aug. 2

Capitol School of Austin, 2011 W. Koenig Lane

$315 a week for June half-day camps, $625 for July full-day camps