Mary Lelonek earned a bachelor’s degree in exceptional education in May. In July, she stepped back into a Buffalo State classroom as a volunteer for a week-long acting workshop. It was a week she won’t soon forget.
Lelonek (pictured at left), along with five current exceptional education students, immersed themselves in a theater class with six students in the College Based Transition Program. An initiative between Buffalo State, the Buffalo Public Schools, and People Inc. The 13-year-old transition program provides college-age adults with moderate to significant disabilities a taste of college.
“I loved watching the transition kids perform. They memorized their lines well, had great facial expressions in the scenes and were very engaged,” said Lelonek, who has a background in theater. “The class tapped into everything they struggle with—social interaction, body language, and memorization.”
Students have a range of disabilities and diagnoses—from autism to learning disabilities.
With the approval of professors, they can take one non-degreed course a semester. Currently, six students are here from the Buffalo Public Schools and six from People Inc.
“They are highly motivated to have a college experience,” said Mary Lou Vaughan, a special education teacher with Buffalo Public Schools who helps facilitate the program on campus. “If they have motivation, we can take care of the rest.”
During the summer workshop, a new initiative taught by theater lecturer Maureen Porter, the line between the two groups of students quickly blurred. Meeting every morning for a week in the Flexible Theatre, they performed scenes where the students created a back story, fully developed characters, and relationships with their scene partners. In addition, they worked together through warm-ups, acting exercises, learning lines, group discussions facilitated by Blackboard, all while bonding and drawing inspiration from within.
“It was amazing to see how close we became in just one week, how much everyone opened up,” said Lelonek who participated in the class at the invitation of exceptional education lecturer and Buffalo State liaison Lynne Sommerstein.
Porter reflected: “The experience shattered every myth I had. Not only did the transition students find success, they developed relationships on stage and told stories that were so compelling I was blown away.”
Some of the transition students felt ridiculed in the past and initially were reluctant to take the course, fearing ostracism, Vaughan said.
However, in Porter’s class, they found acceptance and a sense of belonging.
“This group has become like a second family to me,” said 18-year-old Kristina Mastelino a month after taking the course. “I consider all of them my friends.”
Chelsey Braun, a 22-year-old transition student said she loves theater but also signed up as a way to make friends. The experience bolstered her confidence to the point that she auditioned—and landed—a role in a professional theater production in Buffalo.
“Taking this class kept me going,” she said. “It made me feel warm and happy.”
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