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As Aevary Kiernan belted out “Circle of Life” with her classmates during The Center for Discovery’s three-show run of “The Lion King,” there was hardly a dry eye in the room. For her mother, Jill Kiernan, it was an especially emotional moment.

Aevary grew up asking her parents when she would get a chance to participate in a school performance like her brother and his friends. She watched others act in school plays, compete in sporting events and dance in recitals. It broke her mother’s heart that the 13-year-old didn’t have the same opportunities.

But all that changed when Aevary began attending school at The Center for Discovery last summer. Aevary travels more than an hour each way to the specialty center that is internationally recognized for its innovative education and treatment program for children and adults with complex disabilities, medical frailties and Autism Spectrum Disorders. With The Center’s whole-person, whole-community approach, a diverse team of professionals come together to incorporate music, dance and recreation therapies along with the more traditional occupational, physical and speech therapies.

Aevary’s life was truly changed the day she came home, grinning from ear to ear, holding a letter about auditions for “The Lion King,” her mother said. The young Rafiki would jump out of bed on rehearsal days, and enthusiastically engage in conversation with others about her upcoming play.

Over the seven years since The Center for Discovery began its drama program, Senior Director of Music Therapy Conio Loretto, who directed “The Lion King” and The Center’s previous three shows, said drama has become one of The Center’s most successful therapeutic tools. Between productions, the music therapy department along with a multidisciplinary team offers drama classes, to teach everything from acting to stage directions.

A general audience may take for granted all the little things that go into putting on a performance, said Rachel Chaiet, production manager and occupational therapist at The Center. The students and adult residents at The Center for Discovery face a wide range of challenging and complex disabilities. Some of the teens and adults have sensory challenges that make it hard for them to adjust to lighting changes or have makeup applied to their faces. It is important for performers to follow directions, maintain focus and be flexible when things don’t go according to plan, but this can be a significant challenge for many of those who participated in The Lion King.

Those challenges are why many students like Aevary, in other educational settings, never get the chance to participate in activities. But recreation therapist Erin Atkins said that at The Center, staff simply assess the areas in which a student is successful, and create opportunities around their skill set and interests. The script and costumes were adapted for the actors, but the whole experience of the play was just like any other school production. And everyone’s expectations were blown away.

“Because we’re raising the bar for them, they meet it,” Chaiet said.

The acting was professional, and no detail was overlooked in the production’s performance and design, Jill Kiernan said. But it went further than that.

“One thing that really impressed me was seeing how these kids helped one another, and cheered each other on,” Kiernan said. “There was no sense of competition, but a strong sense of camaraderie.”

Drama teaches students empathy and social skills, Loretto said, as they explore their character, learn to help each other with lines and build meaningful friendships, both on- and offstage. Those skills and characteristics may not always stand out to an audience, Loretto said, but the students have grown in so many ways through their experience.

“I think that’s the biggest compliment, if you’re watching our shows and you don’t understand what it took to get us there,” Loretto said. “That’s what we want.”

This show was a whole-community effort. Staff, students and residents from every department at The Center for Discovery pitched in, building sets and designing costumes. The Hurleyville Maker’s Lab, a public space for innovation and creation, helped design and build props and costumes. The Maker’s Lab Director Mark McNamara taught the production crew how to use lab equipment like the laser cutter, helping Atkins and her team create stunning wildlife props.

Coming together around this type of production is all part of helping the individuals at The Center be their best selves and live their best lives, Loretto said. He would like to see some of his actors find opportunities to act in the community in the future. Students like Aevary, and all those on stage during The Lion King, are proof of how life-changing it can be to provide an opportunity.

“It’s always been my philosophy that you follow where the work takes you,” Loretto said. “And if this is what the kids need, then this is what we provide for them.”

SEE THE MUSIC VIDEO HERE: https://youtu.be/WLWM-EqdDG0