'All-inclusive' show displays compassion, helps charity
When inclusive, compassionate and helpful are the top words used to describe an event, odds are something went right.
By this definition, the eighth annual variety show put on by the Council for Exceptional Children Club at Naperville North High School seems a smash hit -- it included students with special needs, displayed compassion from their typically developing peers and helped advance research on children's brain tumors, viewers and supporters say.
The show last month featured the talents of roughly 100 students -- 40 with special needs and 60 without -- as they danced, cheered, stepped, sang, acted and jump roped their way into audience members' hearts.
The show is one of the main monthly events put on each year by the club, which pairs students with special needs with peers in regular classes for mentorship, acceptance and fun, says Clare Severson, a special-education teacher at Naperville North and co-sponsor of the Council for Exceptional Children Club.
"It's what you want to see out in society," Severson says about the club. "It's all-inclusive. It helps our special needs students feel more involved in the school."
The show displays the skills of the special needs students, who otherwise might not get as many chances to sing in choirs or act in theatrical performances.
"It's not just about their talents," Severson said. "It's about the friendships they make with their regular ed peers."
Parents of special needs students, such as Maya Morgan's mother Karyn Morgan, agree: Peers do much to make what they call the "CEC Club" as beneficial as it is.
"The compassion that they show and the acceptance of the students is genuine," Morgan said. "When you see the peers truly working with the students, it's just amazing -- and it's welcoming. These kids are in it because their heart is in it."
Morgan's daughter performed a step team stomp-and-clap routine and a jump-rope routine during the variety show, which also took on a charitable component.
Severson said each year the CEC Club's board members choose a nonprofit organization to benefit from proceeds of the show. This year's chosen recipient was the Swifty Foundation, a group that exists to give pediatric brain cancer "a swifty kick in the pants" in honor of late Naperville North student Michael "Mikey" Gustafson.
Mikey died of a brain tumor in January 2013 when he was 15, but before then, he decided it was his "master plan" to give up his tissue for research so a cure can be found for future young patients, his mother, Patti Gustafson, says.
The Swifty Foundation raised $900 at the CEC Club variety show and will put the money toward a new tumor tissue donation program it established last fall at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia with a two-year, $300,000 donation.
The program, which helps coordinate donation of tumor tissue after a child with brain cancer dies, now is spreading to about a dozen other hospitals nationwide, including Lurie Children's in Chicago, Gustafson said.
It helps address a shortage in cancerous cells on which researchers can conduct experiments to find potential treatments or cures, she said.
"It's very helpful for the families in the grieving process to know that the tissue is doing some good and know a part of their child is living on," Gustafson said.
This was the second year Gustafson has attended the CEC Club variety show, and now she said she'll make it a tradition -- whether the kids with special needs continue supporting kids with brain tumors or if they settle on a different cause.
"To see these kids work together, encourage each other, tell silly jokes and laugh and sing," Gustafson said, "It's just such a delightful way to spend a day."