Lexie Aaron stands center stage. The 13-year-old girl sings out in a strong, pure voice, "Miracles happen ev'ry day ... open your eyes."
The song is the opening number of "Everyday Miracles," an original musical about four Hebrew school students who travel back in time to interact with their biblical heroes. But what makes this production so unique is that children with special needs get to emote alongside their typically developing counterparts.
Lexie struggles with autism and lacks the social language that comes easily to most children in her age group. But "when she sings and other people respond, it's a source of joy for her," said Hillary Aaron, Lexie's mother.
The program brought together 20 children between 7 and 15 earlier this year to act out Bible stories and learn the fundamentals of stage performance. Although a few of the kids are nonverbal, and many face challenges ranging from Tourette's syndrome to autism, each has discovered their own talents.
"Everybody gets a moment to shine," said Elaine Hall Katz, creative director of The Miracle Project, an after-school theater program partly funded through the Jewish Community Foundation.
Excitement about the upcoming June 15 performance at the Odyssey Theatre was building during a recent rehearsal on the theater's stage. Music therapist Karen Howard, assisted by budding directors Rachelle Friedman and Aaron Feinstein, taught the young actors how to use long scarves to simulate the parting of the Red Sea. A boy who months earlier had refused to do anything but spin in circles was belting out his lines like a veteran. The small crisis that arose when one child clung to a prop baton was gently defused by a staffer who coaxed him to get with the program: "You want to come and pick out what scarf you like?"
The adults in attendance couldn't stop talking about the previous Sunday, when a large portion of the show was videotaped. Both parents and staffers found it miraculous how well these children focused, took direction and coped with technical delays.
"Sunday was like a piece of heaven," said Linda Schorin, mother of 11-year-old Steven Felder.
Steven's Sunday triumph was particularly gratifying because not long ago he used to hide under stage mats, refusing to be photographed. But volunteer videographer Kevin McDermott, a special education teacher for 17 years before starting a children's acting school, knew enough to be patient. Over the course of many weeks, he demonstrated the workings of the camera to the boy. By Sunday, Steven had no problem being filmed while sporting a fake beard and playing a solo part. McDermott was not surprised. "I think he likes the fact that I respect his space," he said.
Schorin, an artist, lauds Miracle Project staff: "I've been so impressed by the level of creative talent, but also the great warmth and caring for children who are unique," she said. She loves knowing her son is part of an artistic endeavor whose goal is "not only accommodating your kid but celebrating your kid."
Creative director Katz, a veteran Hollywood acting coach and founder of the Kids on Stage ensemble, is also the mother of a boy with special needs. While attending a special-education workshop at the Zimmer Children's Museum, she became convinced that children like hers needed a creative outlet compatible with their Jewish upbringing. Within days of a grant application deadline, she sent a proposal to the Jewish Community Foundation.
"I literally asked God for help and wrote the application in one day," Katz said.
She received a $40,000 grant from the foundation in October 2004, but future activities of The Miracle Project will depend on locating new funding sources because the Jewish Community Foundation grant is nonrenewable. So far the grant has allowed her to handpick a core staff of special education experts and theater professionals.
A circle of dedicated volunteers has also played a key role in the organization, which include several parents, a professional teen actress, an anthropology student and a nanny. Cantor Steven Puzarne, who founded the synagogue musical renewal organization Breeyah, contributed an original score to the project.
Katz has offered training to staffers, as well as to the typically developing kids in the program, helping them learn to interact comfortably with youngsters who sometimes have trouble with mainstream behavioral cues.
Some of the children in the project, like shy 7-year-old Shachar Cohen, are here simply because they like acting. The fact that typical children also participate helps stave off the sense of isolation that special-needs families often experience. Even siblings of children with special needs are glad to step out of the shadow of their more needy sisters and brothers.
Thirteen-year-old Rachel Wolf, who appears on stage with her younger brother, Danny, has boosted her self-confidence with a major role. Because Danny's speech is limited and cerebral palsy confines him to a wheelchair, mother Michelle first assumed that he couldn't join the cast. But he's thriving in what his mother calls a "roll-on part," and relishes his few lines: "Go, go, go Goliath!" and a hearty "amen."
The Miracle Project has also become a family affair for Ami, Ezra and Noam Fields-Meyer. Ami, 11, and Noam, 7, attend Pressman Academy. But 9-year-old Ezra, who is home-schooled because of his autism, sometimes feels left out. In father Tom's words, "This is the only organized activity that all three of our kids do together."
Each gets the chance to show off his abilities with Ami, who plays Elijah the Prophet.
Tom's wife, Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer, lends to The Miracle Project her own Jewish perspective. Once a month, during a Wednesday evening rehearsal, she leads a Torah study session geared to parents of children with special needs. One week's discussion centered on Jacob wrestling the angel, an apt image for the parent who struggles at night with his or her child's diagnosis. At Passover, she introduced the haggadah's four sons as a way to come to terms with the labels society imposes on "these difficult, magnificent children."
Fields-Meyer's approach, part of her own project Ozreinu, Hebrew for "our help," is deliberately "multidenominational, multidiagnostic." Parents with a wide range of Judaic knowledge and involvement attest to the value of her message that special needs families have a place within Judaism.
Linda Schorin, for one, is grateful that The Miracle Project paves the way for "coming together in creative community, coming together in spiritual community."
For Katz, the creative director, the project has a strongly Jewish and mystical outlook. To enhance the spiritual element within each session, she begins and ends every evening with a prayer. As the children cluster around, she says, "May we be blessed." Then, on cue, the kids all shout, "I'm a miracle!"
The Miracle Project performance of "Everyday Miracles" will be June 15, 5:15 p.m., at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. $20 (adults), $15 (children). For more information, call Miracle Project Executive Director Debra Phillipes Black at (310) 963-2240 or e-mail Elaine Hall Katz at email@example.com.