Sitting in on a brainstorming session of the Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation’s Therapeutic Recreation Section’s performing arts club is like lounging on the recliner in front of the television with your thumb on the clicker.
Every time program director Shannon Maxwell or a club member spits out the name of a movie or a television show the group might like to act out, 23-year old participant Damian Chwalek dives into a spot-on imitation of one of its characters.
In a matter of seconds, Chwalek becomes the title characters from “Scarface” and “Beetlejuice” and then quotes key lines from “Grease” and “Finding Nemo.” He’s the group’s resident Frank Caliendo, comedian and impressionist, and he hopes to find his path to Hollywood one day.
The Performing Arts Club’s is the product of a developing partnership between the Mecklenburg County’s Therapeutic Recreation Section and the parks and recreation departments from the Lake Norman towns of Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson. The program’s mission is to promote inclusion through a social environment for teens and young adults with special needs and to build their confidence and break down social barriers.
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The eight-week program is held Monday evenings at Cornelius’ Bailey Road Recreation Center, housed by Bailey Road Middle School. It will conclude May 2 with a collection of skits performed by the Club’s eight members.
“They’re stepping out of their comfort zone,” said Maxwell. “I think it’s a really good opportunity. Parents were super stoked when we reached out to them. We have a great group. I like the outcome. They mesh well with each other. I’m excited to see where the program goes.”
The partnership between the different parks and recreation departments began last summer when the Therapeutic Recreation Section offered summer recreational camps. Traditionally, it has a much stronger presence in south Charlotte where it is headquartered at the Marion Diehl Recreation Center.
That’s where Chwalek has participated in performing arts programs in the past. About five years ago, he was the lead character in the group’s version of “Grease.”
“I was Danny Zuko, the leader of the T-birds, everybody’s heartthrob” said Chwalek, a north Charlotte resident and the son of Fred and Peggy Chwalek. “It was fun. I was born to thrill.”
Peggy Chwalek said, “They got pretty intricate there, especially with the ‘Grease’ production. They were singing the songs and the whole bit. All those kids got into character. They thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Chwalek is the Performing Arts Club’s most charismatic member and its peer leader. Peggy says he and his two siblings were adopted from a Polish orphanage when he was 5 years old. She added that Damian’s outgoing personality prompted one of his first school teachers in America to predict that he “would be on stage one day.”
During the Performing Arts Club’s first couple weeks, Maxwell directed members through the recitation of tongue twisters and playing an improv game called “TV” in which a participant receives a prompt from a teammate and acts out scenes from a specific television channel.
Appearing “on screen” at a recent club gathering was 16-year-old Davidson resident Sean Kennedy doing his best to portray something he would see on the evening news and on ESPN. In addition to the performing arts club, Kennedy, a Hough High student, also participates in Special Olympics.
“As Sean gets older, there’s just not any programs for him because he’s a teenager,” said his mother Mary Kennedy. “So, it’s been wonderful having (Therapeutic Recreation) add these programs. It’s a place where he can socialize and get new skills.”
Building up to the May 2 performance, Maxwell will lead club members through rehearsals and designing sets and costumes.
When the club concludes itssession, Maxwell says the Therapeutic Recreation Section will turn its focus on its summer camps. She added the performing arts club could pick back up again in the fall.
Joe Habina is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information, call Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation’s Therapeutic Recreation Section at 980-314-1308.