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Photos by Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Volunteer Jeanne Imler teaches the theater portion of the Jesters program for people with special needs.

Jesters show off smiles

Program boosts skills, joy in those with special needs

Keegan Kamleiter, 11, center in red, is one of the youngest members of the program, which started accepting children this year.

– The coolest thing Allison Ballard does every Saturday morning, a few minutes before the two-hour rehearsals begin for the Jesters program at the University of Saint Francis, is greet each participant in the doorway of the mirrored dance studio where the group warms up.

Because it’s only the second week of the season, everybody in line has a nametag, which makes it convenient for the program’s director to address each Jester by name. One-by-one she shakes their hands, chats briefly with each Jester, then invites him or her to join the circle of a dozen volunteers who are slowly dancing and moving counter-clockwise to a boom box’s lilting music. By the time she has welcomed everyone, 70 or so volunteers and special needs young adults and, for the first time, youths ages 6 to 14, continue to dance and flow around Ballard, who by now has moved to the center of the room.

Ten minutes into the dancing, the talking, the laughing, of being alive and just being here, the atmosphere has found its own magical pulse. It’s the energy of joy, and the joy of energy. And everybody – everybody – is smiling.

With her bare feet poking out from her long, flowing black chiffon skirt, Ballard is in total control now; the only one standing as the circle has taken a seat on the polished oak floor. At 50, she has the magnetism and confident aura of a young Mick Jagger in sequins. In separate groups, but not physically divided, she guides the Jesters to chant positive messages to the beat of their own clapping or slapping of the floor; a sort of staggered chant the way groups of camp kids sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

“Aaaaaaaand stop!” Ballard shouts. Her outstretched arms snap to her side, like Leonard Bernstein halting a cacophony of kettle drums. In unison, 70 or so voices and about 140 hands go silent. Ballard smiles broadly. “You are brilliant!” she shouts.

Eleven-year-old Keegan Kamleiter, in a red T-shirt and blue jeans and one of the circle’s youngest, grins agreeably.

These are the Jesters – at least so far – of the 2013-14 season, which is the program’s 35th. Ballard figures that more participants will join in the weeks to come, which is fine. The back door of the Saint Francis North Campus building is always open for new members, especially the young ones.

When the Jesters program began in 1978, it was formed as a performing arts group for youths with developmental/physical disabilities. Each season offers 20 weeks of instruction in dance, music and theater. This year’s fourth element, initiated by Ballard, is shadow art. When the five months of preparation are complete, the Jesters will utilize their skills for two performances March 8 and 9 in the North Campus auditorium.

“These are not really skits; this is a major performance,” Ballard says. “And it’s not a play! I really, really, really hate it when people say something about ‘the play.’ It’s a multi-media performance.

“We do a lot of improvisations. We do work with dialogue and lines. I usually give them an idea of what I’m wanting, but if they want to use their own words, I don’t care. Yahoo! Say it however you want to say it.”

Because of the program’s early popularity, the children who joined back then came back year after year, until they were no longer kids.

“Suddenly they’re teenagers, then they’re young adults,” says Ballard, who enters her fifth year as director. “We still have people in the program today who started in the program with the founding director many, many years ago. … So instead of telling them, ‘You can’t come anymore,’ we just said, ‘Great. We’ll just keep serving you.’ ”

But lately there has been a new push to attract younger participants such as Keegan, who has Down syndrome.

“Last week he was a little nervous because it was his first week, but once he got here, he was really excited,” says his father, Tim Kamleiter, who followed his son down a long hallway to the North Campus’s gymnasium for the morning’s theater portion.

Kamleiter said it was important for his son’s socialization skills, but added, “It’s more about him having fun. You want him to learn stuff, but it’s more about him getting out of the house and having fun.”

As Keegan pretends to be a dog, another Jester rubs his head.

“I love it so much,” says Jeanne Imler, who volunteers in teaching theater. “I’ve loved doing this for years. They come in with the biggest smiles you can imagine and they go out and their smiles are even bigger. That can’t help but melt all over you. It’s happy-making.”

After the introductory welcome by Ballard and the group’s lively warm-up, the Jesters, regardless of age, split into groups. They will spend 20 or 25 minutes in one of the performance classes, then rotate to another, then another, until all four artistic elements are completed.

Because the Jesters program specifically sought out children for this season, there was to be a separate Junior Jesters group. But that, too, changed when Ballard decided to blend all age groups.

“As we talked as artists afterward to talk about how things went, we realized that may actually serve (the children) better because they get to see this whole experience, and they get to move through the stations. … So we thought this was a better approach to begin with.”

But nothing is written in stone.

If there is an influx of young Jesters, bring them on, Ballard says. If there are more adults and older teenagers out there, that’s OK, too.

“We’re looking at an annual participation increase right now of 20 percent from year to year,” Ballard says. “Last year we grew 20 percent. This year we’re growing more than 20 percent. If we continue growing 20 percent, then I need to have a conversation with my community where I say, ‘Look, there’s a need. There’s an interest. And how do we, as a community, want to meet that need and interest?’ ”