The organizers of Include Everyone Project have a simple goal – to afford parents of children with special needs the same opportunities that parents of children without special needs have, such as watching their child perform in a school play.
Kids with special needs are often not included in the opportunity to learn the arts, meaning parents are equally excluded from watching their children perform. But this wasn’t the case on Dec. 4, when the Include Everyone Project hosted its inaugural Winter Gala show and fundraiser – finally giving parents the chance to watch their children succeed on stage.
“For us, we felt maybe there was a hole there somewhere to further kids who really are passionate about the theater,” said Rodney Dong, music director for Include Everyone. “We’d love to have the benefits of performing arts and being on stage, but there’s just not a system in place right now to allow them to do that.”
Rodney’s son, Kiran, has a dual diagnosis of Prader-Willi Syndrome and autism. Rodney ran into an issue when Kiran was attending a theater camp and it became too difficult for him.
“He loved it and we thought he was thriving enough. But it got to be a challenge, I guess, when it became crunch time, one week before the performance. So he didn’t come and it just broke his heart,” said Rodney.
Rodney thought there had to be a way kids with special needs could learn the arts, but in a way that would be accommodating. This is when Rodney thought of Kristen DeBenedetto – they both had children who were friends and Rodney knew she was a dance specialist and autistic movement coach.
They started brainstorming an idea about an arts school that was tailored for children like their own and thought, “If our children went through this, how many other parents are experiencing the same thing?”
DeBenedetto said this project has meant everything to her since it began in 2019.
“It’s everything, it’s my baby. It’s just basically seeing your dreams kind of come to life, and it’s really starting to take off, and I just feel so blessed and thankful to share it with not only my dancers, my musicians and my actors,” said DeBenedetto. “The kids are absolutely magical. They are just fantastic human beings… just as much chance to express themselves and perform as any other kiddo in Santa Clarita. So we just want to give him that opportunity.”
The Dec. 4 performance was the culmination of six weeks’ worth of practice and was split into different segments based on the art.
“It feels surreal. You know, it’s hard to put it into words, just something that I didn’t think was gonna happen, certainly in this amount of time,” said Rodney. “But I feel really pumped to see that the community is coming together to make that happen.”