Theater program pairs special-needs students with peer mentors

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Students are the stars in a local production of ''The Wizard of Oz.'' (WLS)

Students are the stars in a local production of "The Wizard of Oz."

It's a collaborative effort that pairs students with special needs with peer mentors. =

We all know the story of the Wizard of Oz, but it takes on new meaning when children with and without disabilities work together to learn traits like courage and heart, as they do in the Special Gifts Theater Company.

It's no secret Sam Petri has the right stuff to play the role of the cowardly lion. And he is not the only one who is learning to be brave. The Special Gifts Theatre is an educational and therapeutic theatre troupe for children and adults with special needs.

"We basically use the stage as a platform to develop speech and language skills, work on social skill development and increase self-confidence," said Jenni Von Tobel, director of programs, Special Gifts Theatre.

Every child with a disability is matched with a typically developing child as a peer mentor. The pairs work together for months to prepare for a stage production. Students say the benefits flow both ways.

"When I'm in this program, everybody feels different in a positive way. Everyone is the same but have different talents," said Emily Geraci, peer mentor. "Normally, I don't have confidence in myself, but when I think about this program and how it impacted me in my life, it just gives me so much confidence."

The principal at Ebinger Elementary School on the Far Northwest Side says she brought the Special Gifts Theatre to her school because she knew firsthand the lessons students could learn.

"I have a son named Jared who has autism, and around six years ago, I enrolled him in Special Gifts Theatre at the Winnetka location. And I always say that this is the program that gave me back my son," Principal Serena Peterson-Klosa said. "We can't discount the arts in making a difference in kids."

The next Special Gifts Theatre performance will be in Palatine next month. For ticket information or to find out how to join the cast, go to

Related Topics:
educationdisability issuesdisability
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