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The Music of Inclusion

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Unity, Inc. first all abilities show choir to compete

Roosevelt High School in Sioux Falls is creating a culture of inclusivity. The Student Council has taken the lead by giving each student matching t-shirts, organizing a Best Buddies program, and all abilities sport tournaments. And now the choir department is joining in with what is believed to be the first competitive all abilities show choir in the nation. SDPB’s Cara Hetland has this story on Unity Inc.

Matthew, Emma and Carlee are buddies. And they sing and dance together as part of Unity Inc.

“I'm not a brilliant dancer,” said Matthew. “You're good at it though,” encouraged Emma. “But I'm a little bit good at dancing,” confirms Matthew.

“So our show is called Happy and we practice once a week during ad room. So for like 30 minutes and we sing three songs and dance two of them. The first one we sang was Best Day of My Life. Our ballad, so we just sing, is This is Me. And then our closer is Happy. So it's very fun to learn it altogether,” says Carlee.

Unity Inc is the result of an effort to give students with disabilities more chances to be included. About 60 students of all abilities participate in Unity Inc.

Randi Van Der Sloot is one of the Roosevelt choir directors.

“When we decided we were going to go for this project for this opportunity and offer Unity Inc, I started doing a lot of research because I wanted to know if we needed to write the manual or if somebody else had done the work ahead of time,” says Van Der Sloot. “And I've found that there are summer camp opportunities for students of all abilities to try Show Choir. They could go for a week long or two weeks long, a couple hours a day and then they could do a show, maybe a song or two. There are some students that might participate in a typical Show Choir at various levels, but there isn't a Show Choir specifically for students of all abilities. So to my knowledge, we're the first one in the nation. And we're the first one in the nation that goes and competes.”

This year at Washington High School, Unity Inc competed for the first time at a show choir competition. Robyn Starks Holcomb is the head choir director at Roosevelt. She says for the varsity teams it’s about the trophy. It’s about winning. But for Unity Inc, she says it’s just different.

“They're creating a social network amongst themselves that is genuine and authentic,” says Starks Holcomb. “And I think it opens the buddies up to what the world can look like as they grow up and become adults and move into the world. But it also opens a social network and a belonging and a new identity to the participants as well.”

Starks Holcomb is being credited by her colleagues around the region as being a change agent. She says a judge thanked her for changing his own life and said more of this needs to happen in the world. But that’s not how she sees it.

“I think we just see ourselves as, not a change agent so much, but just a little bit awake. Awake to the human beings and the energies and the people that are around you and noticing them as people,” she says.

The ballad – This is Me – wasn’t originally part of the show. Best Buddy students told the directors it’s a song everyone knew. So they decided to play it at a rehearsal and see what happened.

“I'll never forget the day,” says Van Der Sloot. “We were in our rehearsal room and we played it and we said, "Just jam out. Just do whatever comes to mind." And we could not help but cry or get emotional. I mean there were emotions all across the board. It's every student, right there in front of everybody, authentically performing. Because it touches everybody's heart. And so I think they really showed every person on that stage could show who they were.”

Jenna Beintema is a sophomore at Roosevelt. She’s on the Best Buddies student board, she’s on the bowling team and she’s one of the featured singers in Unity Inc.

“Well kind of all sang. And Mrs. Holcolmb would come around listening to us and I guess I was the best choice and she surprised me by asking me if I wanted to do the solo. But yeah, I'm really excited,” she says.

Jenna’s mom Tammi says being involved in school activities is easy at Roosevelt.

“We told Jenna when she was an eighth grader that when she was at Roosevelt, she had to do at least one thing. And she kind of took that to heart and really got involved. She did the speech team last year, this year, like she said, Best Buddies and with the bowling team. So she's been very active at Roosevelt. And I think it's just great to get involved in the community and with the other kids,” says Tammi Beintema.

Other parents comment that their kids are no longer pushed to the side. It’s a proud moment to see them on stage. For Robyn Starks Holcomb she sees this first competition as only the beginning. Students from other schools approached her about how to start an all abilities show choir at their schools. For Unity Inc, she says it can only get bigger and better.“I see as we progress of just the more and more we can incorporate it into the Show Choir community and culture and bring it up and make it just as much like any other Show Choir show we work on the more we'll do. Costumes, themes, we'll just keep going. As far as they will let us go,” says Robyn Starks Holcomb.

The audience is asked to do a silent clap – just wave fingers in the air so loud noises like cheering and applause don’t startle some students. As hands wave and students bow – most also dab their tears and smile as history was made on a Sioux Falls stage.