By RYOKO NAKAMURA, Rafu Japanese Staff Writer
More than 1,200 people of all ages and ethnicities filled Marsee Auditorium at El Camino College in Torrance on March 2. The performers who received a roar of applause were not famous ballet dances or kabuki actors; they were just average kids with disabilities and their siblings.
Founded in 1994 by two mothers, Mariko Magami and Michiko Wilkins, who raise special needs children, JSPACC (Japanese Speaking Parents Association of Children with Challenges) has provided support in Japanese to help parents to navigate the laws, social services, and cultural differences associated with disabilities in the U.S. Additionally, JSPACC offers support to cope with mental and emotional hardships, enabling each family to become more independent, with the help of Little Tokyo Service Center.
As Magami addressed a large audience, she emotionally expressed that she could have hardly foreseen the organization’s tremendous growth since its formation 20 years ago. “We could not have come this far without parents’ love and dedication to their children,” she said, also acknowledging the members’ hard work as well as volunteers’ and specialists’ support.
To celebrating its 20th anniversary, JSPACC presented the children’s dynamic taiko performance, vibrant hip-hop dance, a magnificent musical, “Miraclecats,” and eurhythmics (harmonious bodily movement as a form of artistic expression) at the festival. The show captured the audience members’ hearts, not because the performers are special kids, but because they are naturally talented.
Yuki Inoue, one of the group leaders of the renowned L.A. Matsuri Taiko, was amazed by the children’s proficiency. She coached 15 kids on a team that was assembled specifically to perform in the 20th anniversary celebration. This special troupe, Kizuna Taiko, spent the last several months preparing for this event.
“Many of them loved music and sound, so they were fairly fast learners,” said Inoue. She didn’t find it difficult to teach special kids with various disabilities; in fact it was educational and fun to come up with new approach to teaching depending on their abilities.
“To teach taiko, we use a phonetic technique called kuchi shouga, but most of them seemed to understand better through sight. So we arranged a music sheet and offered a video for their review,” Inoue added
She wanted them to experience the joy of taiko and the process of creating music together, and she felt that they succeeded in bringing this energy into their performance.
Since 2009, when JSPACC first introduced “Miraclecats” to the public, it has been their best-known art piece.
Sumiyo Sumikawa, a behavioral therapist and the director of Montessori International Academy in Santa Ana, has been directing the musical from the beginning, said she was happy to see the children’s growth. “Whether special needs or not, children who have more experience in performance have started to take initiative and play a leading role to accomplish this big event.
“Children with special needs don’t get nervous in front of a large crowd. They don’t play a role, but they become the character. I hope the audience enjoyed the children’s natural ability to deliver.”
Yoko Ito of Mellins Production served as the stage manager for the show. “When I was first asked to help with their 15th anniversary event in 2009, quite honestly, I wasn’t sure how much children with challenges could participate in a performance, but I was impressed with their creativity and personality,” she recalled.
Ito also saw their growth since then. She intentionally pulled some kids away from their parents who insisted that their children could not do anything without their help. “It was of course the effort of each instructor, but the all kids were fine without their parents and they were learning so many things,” she said. “Through this entire event, not only kids, but parents, instructors, volunteers, all learned from the experience and grew.”
In addition to those 64 children who performed on stage, 39 kids participated in the art exhibition, which was displayed in the foyer.
Over the last 20 years, JSPACC’s activities have not been limited to social gatherings and information exchange for members. In 2005, it joined the Opening Doors alliance, a coalition of minority groups including Asians, Latinos, and African Americans, to ensure that the interests of people with disabilities are represented and their voices heard.
In 2009, it established the Sibling Support Group. Brothers and sisters of special-needs children are often ignored because their parents are overwhelmed with the care of children with disabilities. The support group enables these siblings to help each other as well as to become advocates for their siblings.
To provide children a place to share their amazing abilities, JSPACC also created the Visual and Performing Arts Club in 2010. The group has held several events, offering the public opportunities to learn more about special-needs children.
Taito Ozaki, president of Sibling Support Group, participated in the musical. “People who didn’t grow up with special kids may not know much about them, so I want them to know that there’s a group like JSPACC that offers support,” he said. Ozaki believes that sharing more information about disabilities and showing the talents of special kids will help increase public awareness.
The president of JSPACC, Ruriko Yoshiyama, remarked that after the show, her son with autism, Taisho, expressed his appreciation to his fellow “Miraclecats” cast members. Taisho explained that these past few months were very precious for him with his sister, Maria, who will go to college in Japan next month.
Yoshiyama said, “I was touched by his emotional speech, realizing that rich affection and pure feeling growing inside him.”
JSPACC will continue to provide opportunities for children with challenges to showcase their natural talents. To promote a barrier-free community, their next goal is to strengthen interaction with members in Japan, which is still a closed society in this regard.
For more info about JSPACC, visit www.jspacc.org.