SRU students help stage sensory friendly ‘Peter Pan’


ballet dancers

Slippery Rock University students volunteered to help stage the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s sensory-friendly adaption of “Peter Pan.” (Photo by Rich Sofranko for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.)

March 3, 2016

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - At Slippery Rock University, volunteer service is seen as a critical component in the educational process and part of the University's goal to develop "good citizens." Through volunteer service, students learn new concepts for applying classroom knowledge to help improve the lives of others. A group of 11 students in the Education Living-Learning Community residence hall program recently put this theory into practice when they volunteered to help the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre stage a sensory friendly performance of "Peter Pan."

"The purpose of the sensory-friendly performance trip was to educate students on the concepts of adaption for children who are assisted with sensory accommodations, while learning about dance and finally, enjoying the show," said Justin Kleemook, SRU assistant director of residence life.

A Pittsburgh Ballet spokesperson said the SRU students assisted in helping patrons find their seats and engaging children in the audience.

"Having a strong team of volunteers who understand, and have expertise in, the unique needs of our patrons is a huge strength of our sensory-friendly programming," said Christina Salgado, director of education and community engagement for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. "The performance is really about creating a supportive and relaxed theater setting for our patrons to enjoy the ballet in their own way. We're very grateful for the commitment of volunteers like the Slippery Rock University students who made the trip to be part of this special experience."

Kleemook and Patrick Beswick, director of residence life, drove students to Pittsburgh's Benedum Center, where the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater staged "Peter Pan."

"The students, especially as education majors, really got to understand how working with different people is important in a real-world setting," Kleemook said. "We can talk about diversity and working with people with cognitive and developmental disabilities, but until you actually get an experiential learning piece tied into that, it is just words on paper."

Sensory-friendly theatre caters to families of children and adults with cognitive, development and physical disabilities such as autism. Performance adaptations include lower sound levels, elimination of startling effects and relaxed house rules regarding moving around and the use of electronics for therapeutic uses.

justin kleemook


Kleemook said students learned a great deal from the experience. They received a briefing on the history of sensory theater and toured the facility. They trained with Lu Randall, executive director of the Autism Connection of Pennsylvania, learning how people with autism react to certain stimuli.

After an orientation, students took their places in the theatre to help families in and out of the theatre.

Students also handed out "fidget objects," to keep children occupied when necessary and one served as a "catcher" to prevent children from rushing the stage.

"Students who attended this event said it was a beneficial and memorable experience," Kleemook said. "Our goal at residence life is to incorporate learning and community service into the residence hall experience. Being part of a community is about making connections with others who have common interests."

Simmone Bell, a graduate student in student affairs in higher education from New Castle, said she learned more about autism.

"To me, the work that the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre is doing with help from Autism Connection correlates perfectly with the ideals of my degree. In this case, children and their families had a place that they could be treated fairly and have an opportunity to attend a performance," she said.

"Performances are sometimes places where people with autism get isolated from due to etiquette conditions where they are executed to be quiet and sit in their seats. This performance allowed our students to see first hand how families can benefit from people thinking outside of the box," she said.

The activity illustrates the involvement of students in SRU's Living Learning Community clusters. SRU offers academic and special interest LLC's, in business, education, honors, liberal arts, health environment and science, explore, discover, decide, creating connections, military and emergency services, leadership, sustainability and geo-science, sophomore year, gender studies, transfers and recovery on campus.

Kleemook said residence life plans to send education students to the Benedum for a sensory performance of The Nutcracker next year, and hopes to offer connections for students in other LLCs to experience neurodiversity.

"Students need to keep reaching out for an experience like this," he said. "The LLCs are a wonderful way to connect what they're learning in the classroom with real-life experience."

Other students that volunteered for the "Peter Pan" program were: Saheed Rizwan, a psychology major from Sri Lanka; Carrie Writt, an early childhood/special education major from Greensburg; Nicole Nuske, an education major from Akron, Ohio; Rachel Powell, an education major from Monaca; Logan Smith, a music education major from Pittsburgh; Kristen Weightman, an early education major from Jeannette; Brooke Jedry, an education major from Mars; Martina Snyder, a secondary education major/English from Claysville; Erin Fisher, a health and physical education major from Brunswick, Maryland; and Mohamad Manfoud, a second education major from Pittsburgh.

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