- Associated Press - Saturday, January 14, 2017

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Carpool has been a loud and off-key treat for Danny Gass the past two days.

Gass’ son and backseat passenger Kaleb has been belting out snippets from his upcoming theater production.

The 10-year-old will perform tonight with about two dozen other children and young adults with disabilities in “Join Us in the Jungle” at the Munroe-Meyer Institute. Kaleb, who has Down syndrome, has no fear of the spotlight.

“He’s a bit of a show-boater, so he’s always dancing around and shaking his booty,” Gass said. “They don’t have the gene of embarrassment. They get up there and do the best they can. That’s good enough for them. We can all benefit from that.”

Gass said he’s grateful his son and other children have the opportunity to learn what it takes to put on a theater production.

Arts programs that foster hobbies and creative pursuits often aren’t available for those with special needs, said Dr. Michael Crawford, director of recreational therapy at the Omaha institute. The institute provides services and support for children and adults with intellectual, developmental or genetic disorders.

“These kids don’t get to be in show choir, on the dance team or in theater productions,” Crawford said. “We’re trying to optimize that quality of life that’s missing for them.”

The Omaha World-Herald (http://bit.ly/2iQem7K ) reports the performance is based on the children’s book “Giraffes Can’t Dance.” Thespians will tell the story of Gerald the giraffe as he travels through Africa learning new dance moves. The story teaches what organizers hope participants gain out of the experience - confidence and the importance of dancing to the beat of your own drum.

Younger performers practiced puppetry. Teens were in charge of dance and movement on stage. Young adults created skits and delivered lines on stage. Multiple groups helped with set design and props.

On Thursday, performers gathered in a building on the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus for a quick rehearsal.

Beth Nietzel, who has Down syndrome, practiced her new dance skills on stage while wearing a hot pink tutu. Peers cheered on the 19-year-old as she kicked her legs and posed with her hands on her hips.

Grant Switzer and Daniel Holm, who both have Down syndrome, were looking forward to moving and grooving on stage. Switzer, 19, said his best moves would be showcased in the “Cha-Cha Slide.” Holm, 18, was ready to practice the splits on stage.

“I am so excited for tomorrow, the big day,” he said.

The kids will perform tonight for their family and friends.

Erin Bentzinger, an adaptive therapy specialist at the institute, said she enjoyed seeing the participants take on leadership roles during the workshop.

“They’re able to find their own interests, their own special talents,” Bentzinger said. “This really has been a great program for kids to learn start-to-finish what it takes to put on a production.”

The theater workshop is a partnership between the Munroe-Meyer Institute and WhyArts, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing art to under-served populations. WhyArts artists taught the performers dance, set design and acting.

The jungle-themed show was the first in a series of workshops for the people the institute serves. Officials said $30,000 is budgeted for the next three years to offer a summer and winter workshop. The goal is that the program becomes part of the institute’s regular curriculum, which likely would require donations or other fundraising efforts.

KellyLynn Wakehouse, 24, loved every part of the project. Wakehouse, who has a mitochondrial disease and uses a wheelchair, will play the back side of the giraffe.

“We’ve always expressed to her that she can do what she wants to do,” her mother, Beth Wakehouse, said. “I think it’s wonderful they have this opportunity.”

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Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com

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