In 2008, United Cerebral Palsy of Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties (UCPLA) identified a need within local schools to create a theatre and creative program for children of all ages with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental disabilities.
A pilot program called the UCPlay Project was established with two classes in 2008 at Walgrove Elementary School with just 14 students.
Today, the program has grown to be such a success that it has assisted close to 1000 children in four school districts across Los Angeles.
The Program Manager of the UCPlay Project is Olivia Karaolis, who teaches at 20 schools each week reaching 350 students. Nine of those are within the SMMUSD.
At these nine SMMUSD schools she provides 15 classes weekly that range from preschool to high school students.
She is assisted by two part-time instructors, Cydney Shindel who teaches the program at Palos Verdes and Whittier, and Michael Cappelli who teaches at Samohi and four new school sites in LAUSD.
“Education is the most important form of intervention for children and young adults with special needs,” Karaolis said. “For this reason I designed a creative arts program that focused on teaching social and communication skills. The program was to be based in schools, working with teachers and students. This marriage of the field of special education and the performing arts reflects my background, I was an actress for 10 years and then pursued by Masters in Special Ed.”
When she goes into a classroom, she engages with the students through highly interactive activities that involve sensory materials and music.
She said puppets model many of the activities, as they are easier for children with special needs to understand.
“I seek to assist students to learn the essential social skills of taking-turns, greetings, making requests, and sharing,” she said. “In my older classes we use film to give students lots of practice at interpreting the feelings and behaviors of other people. This is a huge challenge for many students who find it challenging to make eye contact, maintain personal space, or touch another person appropriately. One of my classes is making their own Social Skills DVD and another is making an episode of Top Chef complete with cooking challenges.”
She said the most rewarding part of her job was the interaction with the students and the teachers.
“I do have the most wonderful job in the world, especially when one of my students reveals a part of themselves that we had not seen before-and sharing that with their teachers,” she said. “I am very lucky to work with such incredible people. I have come from the other side of the world and found my home.”
Like any additional program introduced into the school district, the course is in need of funding to stay alive. UCP subsidizes the program, which also receives funding from the SMMUSD and the Santa Monica Education Foundation.
Karaolis said the non-profit received calls from many other schools and parents every week who want their child to participate in our program, but more funding is needed before it can expand further.
For more information about the program and details on how to make a donation, visit www.ucpla.org.