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A group of dedicated musicians and artists are running an arts school for special needs children, where they are taught art, music and drama.
MUSIC is a language we can all understand, even if we can’t all speak it. To master it is an achievement for anybody, let alone children who have been classified as having “special needs”.


Graeme Watkins is ambassador of the Journey School of the ArtsGraeme Watkins is ambassador of the Journey School of the ArtsYet this is the focus of Journey School of the Arts, illustrated at its open day at the Joburg Promusica Theatre on 25 May.

Children diagnosed with conditions ranging from deafness to autism are catered for at the school, and a customised curriculum has been formulated to ensure that these children can reach their full potential.

Graeme Watkins, a popular musician, is an ambassador for the school. “When I was young, I was told I was stupid and would never achieve anything.”

Then it was discovered that he suffered from ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and dyslexia; and a teacher devised a programme to help him achieve academically through the arts. As such, it is a cause incredibly close to his heart, he says. “If you take out the needs from special needs, you are left with special, and that is exactly what these kids are.”

According to the school's website there are no known schools in South Africa for medium- to high-functioning special needs children, and the remedial and low-functioning facilities are unable to cater for them. There was a gap in the market that needed to be filled.

Remedial


Life coach and music teache, Matthew MarinusLife coach and music teacher Matthew MarinusKim Rundle, the principal and co-founder of Journey School of the Arts, had the goal of opening such a school after battling through remedial education programmes with her children. This goal was realised at the end of 2009, when she partnered with Jackie and Gemma Donnelly.

Jackie Donnelly worked as a learning mentor in England, and has tutored children with Down’s Syndrome, ADHD and autism, among other conditions, into mainstream high schools. Gemma Donnelly formed StageWorx Performing Art School, which is a part-time integrated special needs and able-bodied school. She is also a performer.

Consequently, Journey was born. The curriculum is a home school programme that each child can follow at his or her own pace. A specialised teacher is on hand to provide assistance and guidance. Having realised that special needs children are naturally drawn to the arts, the three women created a programme where academic working hours are kept to a minimum and the students have more time to pursue the subjects they love and for which they have a talent.

There are, at present, five full-time students at Journey, ranging in age from seven to 15. The school has only been open for 18 months and the women are hoping to expand. “We want to open a full-time combined school,” Donnelly says.

Arts education
Singing, learning to play musical instruments, art and drama are all incorporated, and this is what the open day demonstrated.


A student gets drumming lessonsA student gets drumming lessonsMatthew Marinus, the drummer for the Graeme Watkins Project, is Journey’s resident music teacher and head of life coaching. “I have a passion for helping kids find out what they want to do when they are older,” he said at the open day. He works with the children by teaching them to play the drums and guitar, as well as with singing.

The principal of StageWorx and an arts teacher at both schools, Gemma Donnelly works intensively on drama and coaching the students for their musical theatre and performance arts exams. “Drama helps, especially with deaf children, with pronunciation and with their self-confidence,” she points out.

Some of her pupils performed individual pieces at the open day. They also gave sneak peeks into the preparation for their musical theatre exams.
Also on the bill at the open day was a preview of the schools’ production, Wizard of Fu, which will be on at the Promusica Theatre on 8 and 9 July. It is a remake of the classic Wizard of Oz and feature students from Journey and StageWorx.

Tickets are R60 for adults and R50 for children, with groups of 10 or more paying R40 per person. Bookings can be made with Gemma Donnelly directly on gemmalouisedonnelly@gmail.com.

Joburg Promusica Theatre is found at 100 Christiaan de Wet Drive in Florida Park, Roodepoort. For more information about Journey School of the Arts, visit the school’s website.

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