by Joe Bollig and Beth Blankenship
OVERLAND PARK — Consider, please, the jellybeans. No difference can at first be seen. But taste and do yourself a favor. These jellybeans have many flavors.
Overland Park’s Holy Cross School students and families have been caught up in a conspiracy — the Jellybean Conspiracy.
The Jellybean Conspiracy is a not-for-profit organization begun in 2001 that uses drama and song to teach students about autism awareness, tolerance and inclusion.
Why jellybeans? Because children are like jellybeans.
“Jellybeans may all kind of look alike, but they have all different flavors,” said Emily Kroge, Holy Cross fifth-grade teacher. “They might look the same, but they’re all different.”
The Jellybean Conspiracy came to Holy Cross School on March 1 with two performances of the musical “No Such Thing As Normal.” The stars were a cast of 13 seventh- and eighth-grade students, as well as a choir of 28 fifth-grade students.
The directors of “No Such Thing As Normal” were Paula Winans, Joyce Brown, Robert McNichols Jr. (of the Jellybean Conspiracy) and Julie Lewis, Holy Cross’ eighth-grade and drama teacher.
The musical was launched at Holy Cross when members of the Jellybean Conspiracy contacted principal Allison Carney, said Lewis.
“We wanted to get the message out about autism and accepting people of all different types and backgrounds,” she added.
Autism is a neurological disorder. Children with autism do not learn the same way as other children. Children with autism may be sensitive to too much sound, light, smells and touch — in short, any external stimuli.
The play consisted of three scenes, interspersed with short skits and songs that all tied into the theme.
“[The students] absolutely loved it,” said Kroge. “It was definitely a much better experience than I imagined. My students counted down every day to when they got to practice. The concept of tying special needs to a musical really got them engaged. Not only did they learn a lot about special needs, they also had a lot of fun.”
One of the benefits, according to three fifth-grade students, was that they now better understand autism and how to interact with autistic people.
Sabrina Dean said she learned how difficult it can sometimes be for autistic people to do the things she does every day. Delaney McMahon said she could relate to the struggles of autistic persons because some things were difficult for her, too. Owen Pudenz remembered how impressed he was by an autistic boy who tried so hard to play basketball.
Despite not having much drama experience, the students excelled in their very first “conspiracy.”
“They did fabulous,” said Lewis. “They did a great job. They worked hard and practiced on their own. I was quite impressed, actually.”