Few things in life are simple, but talk to any one of the students with intellectual or developmental disabilities in choir classes at Oak Park and River Forest High School and it simply comes down to this: “I like to sing.” When asked why they enjoy being in Chorale or Bass Ensemble, students from the Transitional Education with Access to the Mainstream program (TEAM) also cite how it makes them feel — happy.
Jenna Ricks, a senior who has autism, participates in musical theater at OPRF, appearing in productions such as Mary Poppins and The Addams Family. She is also in Chorale and performed with the Concert Choir at the sold-out Prisms of Winter show on Dec. 14.
“I look forward to choir,” she said. “I like to sing because I have a beautiful voice.”
While rehearsing Sibelius’ Finlandia for the finale to the Prisms concert, Choir Director Meredith McGuire put on music in the choir room so the singers could hear the orchestral part to emulate when all choral, band and orchestra participants perform together in the auditorium.
Jenna, knowing she has sound sensitivity, requested headphones to make herself more comfortable.
Another Chorale TEAM student, senior Allison Wenzloff, sings every chance she gets — in the hallway, the cafeteria and even the bathroom. She has cerebral palsy and spends much of her time in a wheelchair. However, two days a week she uses a “stander” so she can be upright, which has also changed her singing ability.
“In the stander, she sings loudly and proudly,” said Kisha Williamson, Allison’s aide. “She is literally one of the girls.”
The Chorale class of 30 students includes five TEAM members. Sophomore Mila Medina, who has performed in Legally Blonde and Mary Poppins at OPRF and has Down Syndrome, likes it when everyone performs together.
Sophomore Katlyn Montgomery is in Chorale and already knew Mila as well as some of the other TEAM students from her involvement in musical theater.
“I love it that they are in class,” she said. “TEAM kids are like regular kids. We talk with them and then understand how to act around them.”
Journey Manuel, another sophomore in the class, likes the sense of community that is part of Chorale.
“I’ve met a bunch of people who I’ve become friends with,” she said. “And it’s made me more humble and helped me work on qualities of selflessness and patience.”
McGuire believes having TEAM students in choir benefits everybody.
“I think most kids don’t walk into a situation where there are students with severe or profound special needs,” she said. “Peer relationships are really important. As the year progresses, they volunteer more, interact more, and they get to know these kids and see they are teenagers just like everyone else.”
Gianna Perez, a sophomore, said working with different students makes the class more enjoyable and since the TEAM students seem so happy to be there, the mood is contagious.
“They would come up to me and be really nice,” explained Gianna, who noted she feels socially awkward at times. “I’ve learned to open up more. And everyone treats each other with respect.”
Aparecido “AP” Bohlander, TEAM student and a sophomore in the Bass Ensemble class, performed for the first time with the Mixed Chorus in the Prisms of Winter show. He auditioned for Hairspray and will sing and dance in the musical, for which McGuire is the musical director.
Another opportunity for TEAM students is Therapeutic Music, created by McGuire and offered for the first time this past January. The class is solely for TEAM students and makes music available to those with a range of disabilities, such as those who are blind or non-verbal or have cerebral palsy. It includes singing, playing instruments and musical concepts such as pitch and rhythm.
McGuire seeing the students grow during the semester, found the experience, just like the choir classes, rewarding for all.