Tucked into a corner, alone, a young girl spent two months watching her fellow students play games, stumble through tongue twisters and make faces. She watched them get dressed up and recite lines. She watched them work together. Then one day, "Julia" walked over and joined the group.
Kim Furness '96 says she was "blown away" when that happened, but she has begun to expect extraordinary things from these special students. They have autism, a developmental disorder often characterized by socially inappropriate behavior, communication problems and withdrawal. Participating in an acting class is probably the last thing most people would expect of them.
Yet these students make believers of all who see them. They first came together two years ago when a Quad Cities speech pathologist contacted Furness-owner of Curtainbox Theatre Company-about starting a drama therapy class. The subject of several ongoing research projects, drama therapy has been hailed as potentially helpful in improving communication and social skills for autistic students.
"These kids really connect with each other," Furness said. "The parents are like, 'They've got friends now!' One parent said, 'My son would never initiate conversations with me, but he does now. His confidence and comfort have improved so much.'"
Furness' autism class is one of several acting classes offered by her company. She said working with her autistic students gives her a special sense of purpose and joy. "This class helps a wonderful group of kids feel like they fit in, sometimes for the first time in their lives," she said. "It's really important."
Furness caps the classes at eight to ten students per term, and the company has never made enough money to pay Furness a salary. By the middle of 2011, she wasn't sure she could continue the programs.
Then, luck struck. First, Furness won $30,000 from an Iowa Lottery scratch-off ticket. Next, she won a $7,500 gift from Royal Neighbors of America for writing an essay about her company. Finally, she won a chance to make commercials for Denver Mattress Company by writing an essay about how much she loved her new mattress.
"The cash infusion has been wonderful," she said. "It will help keep the company afloat for another year."
For her autistic students and their families, it's a dream come true. "Our parents see these kids as a blessing," she said. "But you know their hearts are breaking too. They want their kids to feel like they belong. When you see a child like 'Julia' standing on stage, costumed, delivering her lines to an audience, you see that dream is possible."
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