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Minnesota troupe lets kids with disabilities shine

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STILLWATER, Minn. (AP) — Phillip Junker looked out into the audience during drama practice last week and smiled.

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When he found his mother, Kathy Junker, sitting in the back row of the Stillwater Junior High School auditorium, he gave her a huge thumbs-up.

"Oh, look at him smiling. That's just what Mom wants to see," said Kathy Junker, of Stillwater. "This is really taking him out of his element, but he's become such a little ham onstage."

Phillip Junker, 22, has Down syndrome. He loves to see shows and musicals -- his favorite is "Annie" -- but until this summer, he had never had a chance to perform.

As part of a four-week theater-and-arts program run by Minneapolis-based Upstream Arts, Junker and 17 others helped write, perform and design sets for a show called "Art of Me." They are members of the Valley Friendship Club, a group for children, teens and young adults in the St. Croix River Valley who are living with an intellectual or developmental disability, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.

Performing onstage and working with other young people who have an intellectual or developmental disability can be a golden thing -- helping people like Phillip Junker overcome the social isolation and withdrawal that can come with the disability.

"It's very easy for him to shut down into his own little world," Kathy Junker said. "Interaction is a great thing for him."

Young people who have an intellectual or developmental disability are often "on the sidelines," said Tara King, co-founder of the Valley Friendship Club. "They don't necessarily get to be a part of the action. Oftentimes, you think of the arts and performing, it's giving to the audience. ... Our kids are usually on the receiving end of that, and that's wonderful, but how much more wonderful to be a giver. To be someone who is giving back to the community -- that really rounds you out as a full person."

During practice, Phillip Junker, Steve Crotty, Sarah Kramer and Haley Olson worked on enunciating their lines and practicing their moves on stage.

One exercise involved striking different poses with Upstream Arts co-founder Matt Guidry and teaching artist Dylan Fresco; another involved pretending to be a flock of birds.

"You can do it!" fellow performer Hannah Kane, 17, of Lake Elmo, shouted in encouragement.

Sarah Kramer, 12, of Stillwater, who has Down syndrome, was one of the first to volunteer for a dance sequence -- a fact that amazed Kathy Junker.

"She's usually very quiet," Junker said. "To see her jumping up and volunteering to be part of the group is neat. She just really seems to be enjoying herself. (Guidry and Fresco) make it fun. They're bigger than life, silly. They get the kids out of their shells."

Kramer's mother, Jan, said Sarah has bloomed in a group that fits her learning style.

"Sometimes in a typical school, so many of the kids are so much faster and farther ahead of her," Jan Kramer said. "I think she senses here that she's in a group where she can really have a chance to shine."

Upstream Arts' mission is to use the arts to teach social and communication skills, Fresco said. "Everyone here has had a real opportunity to express themselves and work on connecting with friends in a really creative way," he said.

"Each participant has had a moment of clarity and has been able to express something that they would not have otherwise," Guidry added.

The show to be performed would be a collection of poetry, songs, dances and scene work, Fresco said.

"It's collaboratively created," he said. "It's a performance based on their own words and experiences that we've developed here. Each of the poems, for example, is a poem that the group has written together."

Olson, 20, of Stillwater, said the best part about the program -- which met every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon for four weeks -- was "having fun with my friends."

The Valley Friendship Club, founded in 2010, encourages friendship among peers.

"Our kids who have these disabilities ... as they get older, their world gets smaller, just naturally it does," King said. "And people are kind and people are wonderful, but our kids don't have that group of friends.

"What we're trying to do is create friendships among kids who are alike -- these kids let them have their own club, their own place to go on Friday night. That's why, with teenager stuff, we try to do events on Friday night, so when they hear typical kids talk during school, 'Well, hey, guess what we're doing Friday night?' They've got that same world; they've got those friendships."

The program was funded in part by a $5,000 grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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