Celebrating Differences in Oz

Eileen O'Brien

On Sunday, April 11, friends, family and supporters of The Oz Project filled Hamilton’s Palace Theater for an exciting production of a time-honored classic, The Wizard of Oz. On stage, children with and without special needs performed their hearts out in the culmination of an eight-week theater workshop. The Oz Project, or TOPS, as the drama and music program is known, was created by Colgate University students and faculty to foster an inclusive social learning and growing environment for children with a wide range of needs, including autism-spectrum and related disorders.

“The idea for The Oz Project ultimately emerged from many conversations between [senior] Lindsey Simpson, [Assistant Professor of Educational Studies] Clonan and myself,” senior Alexandra Snell said of the project’s beginnings. “Together with [Associate Professor of Psychology] Conti, [senior] Lauren Kaplan, [senior] Samantha Horn and [senior] Hannah Sandler, among others, and committed to inclusive education, we believed that we could create a fabulous inclusive social skills workshop based in drama and expressive arts therapies.”

Throughout the semester, this core group of committed students and faculty met regularly to develop and critique curriculum and activities that were used with the children, as well as to monitor the engagement and growth of the children involved. As the project grew, attracting elementary students from Hamilton and other local communities, so, too, did the team supporting it. Ultimately, more than a dozen Colgate students, along with two community volunteers, supported the project in various and important ways. Senior Julie Gibbons came on board to help evaluate the effects of the program, while the article’s author assisted with publicity and worked together with community volunteer Delaine Dacko to film and produce a documentary of the program. Several other students helped support and facilitate the children’s participation during the workshops and performance, including sophomore Ali Fieber, junior Lizzy Nolan, senior Lyle Tolli, senior Moana Fogg, junior Caitlyn Loucas, senior Jenn Cahn and senior Katie Holland.

The participation of these student volunteers enabled the children involved to work on forming friendships and developing social competencies. TOPs workshops, set to the themes of “The Wizard of Oz,” facilitated social-skills such as making new friends in uncomfortable situations, like Dorothy did with the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion in the unfamiliar land of Oz. All participants learned new ways to deal with the many challenges of social situations, from feeling left out to responding to a bully.

“By using drama games, music and performance to teach different social skills, we were able to concentrate both on personal growth and commitment to a larger group of people… It was really inspiring to see how the kids in the Oz Project really excelled individually, but also grew as a group who supported each other and celebrated one another’s accomplishments,” Simpson said.

Children also learned to use sign language during the song “Over the Rainbow,” thanks to community volunteer Bethany Sackel, who also worked with Delaine Dacko to choreograph and facilitate creative movement with the engertic group of children.

All TOPs children, be they energetic or quiet, were encouraged to express and recognize their differences.

“The beauty of The Oz Project was most apparent in the day-to-day interactions among the kids…they could look beyond the obvious differences between them and focus on what they shared,” Kaplan said.

This sense of teamwork was evident in the final production, in which close to 30 children, comfortable with each other and their differences, sang and danced like stars. The production was a hit, but the true success was found within each and every participant on stage, who overcame the challenges of social situations and grew to embrace new friendships and confident development within themselves.

“[The project] touched all aspects of the Hamilton community,” Snell said.

Though its cardinal leaders all graduate this spring, the project will surely be reproduced for years to come, leaving its legacy in children and community members alike.