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Grant keeps Oakland’s ‘Au Stars’ program alive

YOUNGSTOWN — Jennifer Frost’s daughter, Rachel, loves to sing, but she also is autistic.

“It’s difficult to find a place she feels comfortable with,” Frost said.

The 12-year-old from Boardman found a home on stage with the Oakland Center for the Arts’ Kids First Theater Initiative, where she has appeared in several shows, including a leading role in its production of “Disney’s The Lion King.”

“It was thrilling to see her be able to do her best and feel great about herself,” her mother said. “I cried, of course, but I’m a mom. Even our friends and family who came to see her in ‘Lion King’ were so excited she had a starring role. Everyone was really proud of her.”

A $15,000 grant from the Youngstown Foundation’s Hine Memorial Fund will ensure that Rachel and other children with autism spectrum disorder will continue to have those opportunities.

“It was imperative, absolutely imperative,” OCA Vice President and Executive Director Brendan Byers said about receiving the grant. “Myself and other board members put money in to pay our rent because we haven’t done anything for almost a year. There’s such a small margin of profit on a show, we didn’t have a lot saved up … We would have figured out how to start back without it, but it would have been really tough. That grant saved our program.”

Like most area theaters, OCA has been shut down since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It plans to slowly re-emerge with workshops starting Feb. 1 that will conclude with performances at 7 p.m. Feb. 19 and 20 at Trinity Fellowship Church, 4749 South Ave., Boardman. Safety protocols will be in place during the workshops, and with 1,000 seats, it will be possible for families to sit socially distanced for the performances.

“Because we have such a big space, it makes it easier for us,” Byers said. “The kids really seem to want to come back.”

Additional workshops are planned in the winter and spring, and the theater’s summer camp will be divided into two sessions this year to avoid overcrowding. Byers said they hope to resume full-scale productions in August, and there are tentative plans to present the area premiere of “Disney Descendents: The Musical.”

Rachel and other students on the spectrum work with the Oakland through its Au Stars program. Those students are cast alongside neuro-typical children, not segregated to separate productions. Byers said he’s had as many as 20 autistic students in some shows and the average is about 12.

There are challenges.

“If you give them a dance routine, maybe they don’t want to hold hands or do what you have to do with a partner,” he said. “Sometimes putting comprehension into action is difficult, and you have to work a little longer with them … But I’ve found, to be honest with you, maybe not for the first show, but by their second show they see how it works and get more comfortable. They see they’re part is just as important as everyone else’s.”

Rachel is an example of that, he said.

“When she first came in, you couldn’t touch her, she wouldn’t look you in the eye, wouldn’t smile,” Byers said. “She’s like a totally different kid now, and that kid’s voice, oh my God, she’s got a gift.”

Nicholas McGoogan, 16, of Poland is another student who’s moved into larger roles since getting involved with the Au Stars Program.

“He had done three other musicals with us and kept saying, ‘I’d like to have a lead role,'” Byers said. “I told him you have to audition. You may get it, you may not. That first audition for a big role, I saw the disappointment on his face.”

Byers wanted to find an opportunity for him. When he read the script for a production based on the classic story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” he immediately thought of Nicholas for the role of the king.

“It’s going to take some work, but I think it could be really fun,” Byers said. “They see my expectations for them. We set the bar really high, and these kids blow me away every time.”

Nicholas’ father, Tom McGoogan, said he’s seen changes in his son since he started doing theater.

“With autism, he was having issues socializing,” McGoogan said. “He has opened up and tried to be more social with people. He also was always kind of shy and at the same time looking for attention. It was difficult for him because he was so shy, but when he got on stage that shyness kind of went away … This was something he could do that he was good at and he got attention for.”

It also gave the father and son a chance to work together when both appeared in a production of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

“I’m a basketball player by nature,” McGoogan said. “I knew I would never be able to coach my son like other fathers would. I knew I would never be able to do that. That play gave me the place to make up for that opportunity, to do something with my son I didn’t think I would be able to do.”

agray@tribtoday.com

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