The most successful semester of The Miracle Project at Mayo Performing Arts Center may be coming to an end, but our work has just begun.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released its biennial report of autism’s estimated prevalence among the nation’s children. Nationally, 1 in 59 children had a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder by age 8 in 2014 – a 15 percent increase over 2012. Even more staggering are the latest statistics for New Jersey, where estimated rates are 1 in 34, a 20 percent increase. With prevalence rates showing no sign of slowing down, I expect the need for programs like The Miracle Project to only increase.
As one of the only three providers of The Miracle Project in the U.S. and only one in the state of New Jersey, Mayo Performing Arts Center is meeting a profound need not only in our backyard but in all the communities our students will become a part of in the future.
As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Mayo Performing Arts Center helps 40,000 children annually through arts experiences and education programs like The Miracle Project, a program that aligns perfectly with our philosophy. The Miracle Project builds on Mayo Performing Arts Center’s commitment to serve all members of the community and provide essential arts education to students of all ages, backgrounds, socioeconomic statues and abilities, including children with autism and other special needs, by combining an inclusion-based arts education program with the use of student aides and peers in the classroom.
Founded more than 12 years ago by visionary artistic director Elaine Hall, The Miracle Project is an evidence-based program using music, dance and theatre to unlock the creativity, personalities and incredible potential of children with autism and other disabilities. Through a unique methodology called WithIn (I Win), the program addresses the core challenges of autism – communication, behavior and socialization. The groundbreaking program welcomes children into the performing arts community and provides students with the tools needed to build communication, social skills and greater self-esteem through inclusive theater and expressive arts.
We’ve long known the power of theater and the arts to entertain, enrich, educate and enhance, both on the community level and individual level. I see that and more in The Miracle Project, and its power in addressing the core deficits of autism to foster inclusion, acceptance, appreciation, social skills and invaluable friendships – all of which last long after the curtain closes on the final class of the semester.
A California State University research project funded by the National Education Association showed that miracles can – and do – happen as a result of the program. The Miracle Project helped 62 percent of participants build meaningful relationships with individuals both on and off the autism spectrum, while they developed a positive sense of self.
Additionally, 39 percent reported a decrease in anxiety levels. Participants also reported decreased feelings of loneliness and marginalization while engaged with The Miracle Project. Children and teens who once were isolated and alone gain close friends, social interactions and shared experiences along with increased feelings of connection and joy. The program gradually brings children with autism from their own isolated “worlds” into the world we all share and in turn, families – once estranged from their communities – feel integrated into a supportive social community.
The program at Mayo Performing Arts Center has grown tremendously since launching in January 2017 but there’s still work to be done and community support is critical. Following a successful pilot program in spring 2017, we expanded the program this fall and doubled the number of classes. I am deeply grateful for the generosity of numerous corporations, foundations and individuals that have made the program possible. We’re hopeful for continued financial support from donors who feel good about investing in the arts to enable us to steadily grow the program while maintaining the integrity of the project.
Our goal is to further expand our offerings to include additional classes for children, even more need-based scholarships to ensure that no child is turned away due to financial constraints, as well as classes or single-session events for adults with autism to learn everyday skills.
But the challenge goes beyond finding funding – particularly from the business community – to sustain the program. We also need to expand our venue to grow the program and empower even more students to realize their potential.
Perhaps the most crucial thing we need is community support that values the work we do and the tremendous impact it can have on the students, peer mentors and parents who are touched by it.
I believe in miracles and I hope you do too.
Allison Larena is president & CEO of Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown.