Jam Club takes to the stage

Maple Valley Youth Symphony offers a program called “Jam Club,” which offers therapy music education to kids with special needs.

The Maple Valley Youth Symphony Orchestra (MVYSO) offers a unique program for kids who have special needs.

The program is called Jam Club.

Jam Club is a therapy music education program for kids who have special needs, according to Elisa Lewis, executive director of MVYSO. Students from any and all districts in the area are welcome to join, not just kids from the Maple Valle area.

While MVYSO got started in 2007, Jam Club didn’t get its start until later on, Lewis said.

Jam Club was started when Lewis and a mom in the program realized a lot of the students in MVYSO had siblings with special needs.

“We had a mom in the organization at that the time that was a music therapists and I have a degree in recreation therapy and it just seemed like, ‘this is something we needed to do,’ considering this was the right time and the right people, and there were people with needs,” Lewis explained.

Jam Club provides the students with special needs lessons in social skills and development, learning to take turns, learning how to follow directions and how to follow a leader and other everyday life lessons.

Lewis said they even use songs to teach kids how to make eye contact, shake a friend’s hand and other social skills.

There are three different classes kids with special needs can participate in, depending on their needs, Lewis said.

“We have a class that’s a little more specialized for kids that need a change up a lot faster. So there’s more activities, more changes and less sequential activities. The other classes might build a little more on each other, but the other one is for kids who have a shorter attention span,” she said.

Some of the students in Jam Club excel, while others might take a little longer to come out of their shells.

To help some of the kids express themselves and stay on track, Lewis said the music buddies program was incorporated.

“The music buddies are kids from our typical orchestra program. They are trained specially to be music buddies,” Lewis said. “So the music therapist and I work with them and teach them about the different diagnosis our kids have, like for instance down syndrome, autism all those different special needs diagnosis. And then teach them how to help these kids in a way that’s not overbearing and that’s increasing their independence and kind of teaching them to do the things themselves.”

According to Lewis, music buddies got started by accident.

She said one day at Jam Club, she and the other music instructor felt as if they were outnumbered and not able to help all the kids there at once. To take care of that, Lewis said she called kids in the MVYSO who she thought would be able to help them.

It turned out to be a success.

“Soon we formalized the program and taught them what they were doing. They did a great job right off the bat,” Lewis said. “The Music Buddies get there early, they greet their student when they get there, they help them get settled into the group or some of the kids need to get involved right away, like they need to be touching something, so they’ll take the kids over to play some drums or some shakers or something like that so that they’re getting involved right away. They help them to stay focused.”

A local mom, Julie Hunsaker, said Jam Club has done wonders for her son who is 16 years old and goes to Tahoma High School.

“Initially when he first started, he really had a difficult time even just participating in anything. For example, even just sitting down with the rest of the kids. He would wander around — it’s held in a church, so it’s held in a big auditorium — he would be walking with his Jam Club buddy and wouldn’t participate, wouldn’t do anything,” Hunsaker said. “Over the course of the years, and one of the amazing things that Jam Club does is they pair kids with what they call a ‘Jam Club Buddy,’ (music buddies), which is typically someone that’s in the symphony, and Ben, my Ben, was paired with Elisa Lewis’ son named Ben. We called them Ben squared. And he and Ben were the best pair ever and were together for all five years except for now, Ben’s off into the Marines.”

Hunsaker said because of the relationship he developed with the other Ben, her Ben was finally able to sit down in a chair for a length of time and participate in Jam Club.

Even after Ben Lewis left to go to the Marines, Hunsaker said her Ben is still excelling and doing well in the program.

“I think he was kind of like, ‘What happened to my Ben?’ But he was paired with a new buddy who looks a lot like his older brother so he’s kind of confused, ‘Like wait, what’s my brother Daniel doing here?’ So he’s actually been doing really well. He seems to be doing just fine with his new Jam Club Buddy,” Hunsaker said.

Today, Dec. 14, is the holiday concert that Jam Club students and MVYSO will participate in, Lewis said.

Lewis that added Jam Club students get to play in a finale piece with their music buddies. The music buddies will step out of the orchestra to be with the Jam Club students out on stage.

“They get really excited about the concert. A lot of them will dress up for it and they invite their families and their teachers from school and different things like that. There’s other ones that will get up there and they have a little bit of stage fright, but for the most part the music buddies are able to get the stage fright out of them and hold their hands and help them participate and they have a great time,” Lewis said.

The concert starts at 7 p.m. and will take place at Kentlake High School. For more information about MVYSO go to www.mvyso.org or call 425-433-6009.

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Gretchen Leigh is a stay-at-home mom who lives in a neighborhood near you. You can read more of her writing on her website livingwithgleigh.com. To see her columns come to life, follow her on Facebook at Living with Gleigh by Gretchen Leigh.
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