When asked what problem he could address with his Iowa BIG project, Linn-Mar High School junior Kaleb Cook knew immediately he wanted to help students with special needs.
“Throughout my life, I’ve worked with individuals with special needs and what I’ve noticed is they’re not treated equally,” Cook said. “People believe those with disabilities aren’t able to do things. It’s a huge problem and it really bothers me.”
In addition to the stigma associated with disabilities, Cook noticed special needs students don’t have the same accessibility to extra curriculars as their peers without disabilities, whether due to scheduling conflicts, economic reasons or otherwise.
Another BIG student, Molly Hernandez, a senior at Prairie High School, agreed. She’d witnessed her older sister — who has autism and slight muscular dystrophy — have to quit dance — an activity she’d loved — because she “couldn’t physically do what others could” or keep up with the demanding schedule on top of other commitments like therapist appointments, she said.
On a mission to squash the stigma associated with disabilities and to support their peers with special needs, Cook and Hernandez designed a BIG project called “Dancing Away the Stigma” (DATS) that incorporates dance into the school day.
“Dancing is a universal activity that brings individuals with special needs together in a positive way,” said Molly Sofranko, an Iowa BIG instructor.
Hernandez, who has been dancing since she was three, travels to schools around the district — often with Cook, who is the project lead — to lead short dance classes during the school day.
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All of their classes are adaptive, so regardless of disability, everyone can participate, Hernandez said.
“Dance is so good for your mind and body and allows you to physically express yourself,” Hernandez said. “Maybe these kids can’t say what they want to say, but instead express themselves through movement. ... It can help get students ready for the school day and help them let loose.”
In addition to dance classes, Dancing Away the Stigma is also creating guided dance videos to share with special education teachers to use in the future, as well as planning their big dance party event on April 15 at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena. The dance party will raise money for Camp Courageous of Iowa — a year-round camp in Monticello for Iowans of all ages with disabilities that relies mostly on donations alone, according to Shannon Poe, a former respite caretaker and volunteer director at the camp.
“Any amount of donation benefits Camp Courageous in many different ways, whether it’s providing activities for campers or maintaining buildings and projects,” Poe said.
The camp currently needs a new septic system, as required by the state, which will require a “major overhaul” costing upward of $750,000, Poe said.
“It’s quite the financial undertaking,” she said. “Any donation big or small goes a long way.”
Cook hopes the event also will increase awareness in the community that those with disabilities are capable of the same things as those without physical or mental disabilities.
“Not only can they dance, they can teach us,” Cook said.
“One of our mantras (at Camp Courageous) is that we’re all more alike than we are different,” Poe said. “I think this event is great and really fits in with out idea that people with or without disabilities can come together and have fun.”
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Cook hopes to continue the project next year and even possibly after graduating, he said. He plans to study therapeutic recreation and nonprofit management at University of Iowa and hopes to someday establish DATS as a nonprofit and make dancing a mandatory part of the day for special education students.
“We want this to go Iowa-wide, maybe even implement dance therapy in the curriculum throughout the U.S.,” he said. “It’s cool to be part of something bigger than yourself.”
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