News & Features

CDDE Holds Theatre Camp for Kids

Play gives kids who can't speak a chance to shine

By Aisha Sultan
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH


Just like any anxious parent at his child's first performance, Randy Geabes cupped a digital camera in his hands, poised to click, for nearly the entire play.

Onstage, the young actors waited for their aides to cue them. Joe Geabes,8, was so excited that his helper, Casey Stallings, pushed the button on his speaking device and a computer-generated voice recited his line: "I was so hoping for a unicorn." He smiled from ear-to-ear and clapped.

For many of the performers, Sunday's performance at a stage at Fontbonne University was their first chance in the spotlight. University professors over the weekend put together a free three-day theater camp for children who cannot speak, and for their parents and siblings.

The 16 participants came from across the metro area and as far away as Carthage, Mo. Some were born with disabilities that affected their speech,such as forms of cerebral palsy, while others had cognitive ailments, such as autism.

For the play, they used programmable speaking devices that recited their lines for an adapted version of "The Three Billy Goats Gruff." The stage was small and crowded with 24 people at all times; each disabled student had an aide.

The set was homespun - just a few artificial flowers in pots and a large display of tall grass. The bridge was a brown sheet hung over a rod held up by two actors. But for some of the kids, it may as well have been Broadway.

The Geabes family, of Alton, calls Joe "Tom Hanks" at home for his dramatic flair. The light blonde bundle of energy was described as a "party on legs" by his aide. Unlike the other children, Joe has no diagnosis. He has a list of disabilities, such as low muscle tone, which makes him a bit wobbly on his feet.

He wears hearing aides, has vision problems and can't use his fingers. His mother taught him some altered sign language to help him communicate, but his speech is mostly limited to a few sounds. Doctors don't know what his prognosis is.

The family's insurance company refused to cover the $8,000 cost for a communication device, which is about the size of a portable DVD player and has symbols Joe can push to say, for example, that he wants food. His mother, Stacy Geabes, kept the letter from the company saying communication was "not essential." It's considered "a luxury" by the insurance company, the letter said.

Gale Rice, chair of the communication disorders and deaf education department at Fontbonne, said that is a common struggle for parents needing the equipment for their children.

"It's not viewed as a medical necessity," she said.

The Geabes family eventually found the money for the device. It is their chance to know their child's needs and dreams.

"I want to know what he's thinking," his mother said.

Joe was so excited during the camp that he wasn't able to sleep. He played the role of a river, wearing a blue T-shirt with some waves scribbled on
it.

During rehearsal Sunday morning, Joe sat patiently in Stallings' lap, but his hands were in constant motion.

He pointed to himself and looked at her expectantly: "I," she said.

He touched his right hand against his left fist and looked up: "Love," she said.

He gently waved his hand over the script: "The words," she whispered.

With his huge grin stretching even bigger, he started clapping: "Hooray!" Stallings said.

This exchange went on over and over. And each time, Joe beamed with enthusiasm.

"I . . . love . . . the words," Stallings translated again and again.

When it was showtime, many of the campers were tired by the three days of making costumes and rehearsing, but everyone settled down onstage.

Once, a couple of speaking devices misfired and started repeating lines over one another, but otherwise, the story went off without a hitch. The goats made it across the bridge, the troll was overthrown and everyone had plenty of grass to eat.

Joe seemed dazed when the audience burst into applause and cheers when the play ended.

He sat still for a moment, then enthusiastically started clapping right back at them.