The Include Everyone Project, a new nonprofit in the Santa Clarita Valley, hasn’t let COVID-19 stop it from creating a space for the community to come together, while especially embracing those with special needs, in their pursuit of the arts.
The group isn’t new to the SCV, as the three founding members worked to create the Superhero Inclusive Performing Arts Summer Camp in years past, designed to give kids on the autism spectrum or other developmental disabilities the chance to experience a summer camp targeted to their ability levels.
When the camp was successful, it only further encouraged organizers, Kristen DeBenedetto, Rodney Dong and Kate White.
“At that point, we looked at each other, (and said), ‘OK, there’s an actual need for this, and it doesn’t exist anywhere else in our valley. So let’s move forward and actually make the nonprofit,’” said DeBenedetto, program director and dance instructor of the organization.
Also centered around dance, theater and musical therapies, the nonprofit is somewhat of an extension of the camp.
“We’re still playing around with things, (but) … the biggest takeaway from it for us is: Are we giving the kids an opportunity to have fun and to explore in a way that they haven’t yet or they haven’t done a lot,” said White, drama instructor at the nonprofit.
Though COVID-19 has thrown the newly established organization some curveballs, they’re trying to give kids more of an opportunity to continue to explore the arts.
“The challenges that we’re facing in terms of having to do it remotely, as opposed to doing it in person, has really caused us to sort of analyze what we’re doing and really hone in on what works,” White said.
Even so, she said it’s been rewarding to see the kids in the program grow and try something new.
“For one, I’m having a great time with the kids,” she added. “A lot of times with kids with special needs, they’re not always presented with an opportunity to try something new, especially in terms of autism they tend to be a little bit more regimented and fearful of taking that step into the unknown.”
Kelli Williams, mother of 15-year-old Saki Kordel, who has autism and likes to go by “Team Saki,” has seen that very thing with her son.
“It gives him an opportunity to get involved in the arts,” she said, adding that the opportunity comes without any pressures to be talented, and instead is focused on having fun. “I love the project because it’s about everyone, and everyone just experimenting … and maybe not taking it so seriously and just having a good time with it.”
Williams said she was surprised to see how much the program could get him to break out of his shell and try new things, and has continued to see the influence they’ve had on him this past year as he continues to play drums and sings along to Guitar Hero at home.
“If it was up to him, he’d just be on YouTube all day, so it’s nice to see him dancing and playing drums and stuff like that,” she added.
Through the pandemic, the program has found ways to adapt, offering weekly Zoom jam sessions, using art, theater, music and dance to continue giving kids social connections, even though they can’t meet in person.
“We saw that there is really still, especially with COVID and especially with our special needs families, a really strong need to connect,” DeBenedetto said. “They talk, and we all get to be together.”
While they’ve continued partnering with organizations, and even received an arts grant through the city of Santa Clarita, they hope to expand to more families and nonprofits.
“We’re so blessed in this valley with some just amazing resources, both for special needs and with people that are genuinely just great people and want to help, so thankfully, there’s a lot of people we can connect with, and we can’t wait to get more time and more funding and more opportunities to be able to reach more kids and families and keep growing,” DeBenedetto added. “The idea is to create something more inclusive for our families to be a part of — that would be amazing.”
Dong, the organization’s music instructor, agreed, adding, “To me, in many ways, this was the realization that this dream that we’ve had to try to really just make a difference in our community for allowing people with disabilities to be able to access the arts.”
For all three of the organization’s creators, it’s really been a labor of love, as two of the three have children of their own on the spectrum, with the third having worked with these children for years.
“We’re part of the community now as a service, but also as a necessary resource for our community, and that, to me, means a lot being a dad of a child with Prader-Willi syndrome,” Dong added. “It feels really amazing to have crossed this milestone, this pretty significant hurdle, to be able to call ourselves a legitimate service organization and hopefully even beyond that — it’s a big deal.”
While DeBenedetto considers COVID-19 a trial by fire for the nonprofit, she said it can only go up from here.
“There’s always going to be hurdles, but if we can handle this, we can definitely deal with some of the other bumps and craziness that life will throw,” she said.
“We’re hoping to really build this program into something that everybody will get something out of,” White added.
The Include Everyone Project’s weekly jam sessions are scheduled 10:30 a.m. Saturdays on Zoom. For more information, visit iepscv.com.