Earlier this spring, Ben Shinabery, Executive Director of the Dick & Jane Project contacted Helping Hands Center. He stated that he had received a grant from Autism Speaks and had chosen Helping Hands Center to launch a pilot program that would culminate with our student’s writing and producing two original songs. This was the first time the Dick & Jane Project approached an educational environment that primarily serves students with autism and other developmental disabilities. With great excitement, the planning began. Ben and Andy presented timelines, examples of previous musical productions and many ideas with one main goal in mind: to modify their program to fit our student’s needs. Together, we discussed lesson planning that would prepare the students for the Dick & Jane Project. Students discussed the idea having a theme for a song much as they would discuss a theme for an academic paper, and vocabulary associated with the project, such as genre, chorus, and melody. Students in the third through sixth grades were chosen to participate.
The project began the second week of June. Ben and Andy along with two producers, Rashad Thomas and Corey Montgomery, visited Helping Hands Center for a two week time period, an hour and a half each day. The musicians spoke directly with the students about their interests and explained the song writing process. The musicians and students created a list of common interests, then held a vote to determine song topics. Two topics were chosen: avoiding reminders which is a behavior redirection strategy utilized at school and visiting the pool during community outings.
Rashad and Corey spoke in depth about the reasons the students enjoy the pool and the reminder system. Corey would return each day with lyrics in mind that encompassed what the student’s had suggested. Rashad would return with a suggested rhythm. Both musicians were incredibly open to criticism from the student’s and made changes to their ideas as needed. Suggestions ranged from, “hey maybe a little less flute sounds,” to “why don’t you add a lyric about the slide at the pool.” As our students practiced making suggestions and giving corrective feedback, Corey and Rashad listened and encouraged them. Over the course of two weeks, two incredible radio quality songs were written and composed with the help of our students. Throughout the entire process, our student’s made comments about how Ben, Andy, Rashad and Corey really heard what they had to say.
As the coordinator for many of the student’s involved, it was exciting to witness so many students feel empowered. Every single student was engaged in the production process and excited to know that a song they had a hand in writing would be heard on the radio. They truly felt like “rock stars,” as so many of our students’ stated. Co-Executive Director Erin Nealy had the following to say about the experience: “In a very short amount of time, the Dick & Jane Project team made a tremendous impact on the students and staff at Helping Hands Center’s Summer Camp program. The students were so engaged in the songwriting and production process and this even transferred into my home environment, as my (typically developing peer model) daughter shared the experience with me with joy and enthusiasm. She taught one song to our family, and shared her excitement about her participation in the process. We even transferred the song to make it applicable in our home environment as well. In addition, I was able to observe one of the sessions with the team, and all the students demonstrated engagement in the process and with the team. We are grateful to the Dick & Jane Project and Autism Speaks for their partnership this summer and for providing our students with such a unique opportunity.”
As an organization we truly appreciate the staff at the Dick & Jane Project. Not only were they professional, caring and ambitious with their work, they truly made the experience an exceptional one for everyone involved.