When WXII anchor Cameron Kent walked in the doors of the Stokes Opportunity Center last Thursday it was obvious the students there knew who he was.
But Kent was just one of many stars in the building that day, as he soon learned after meeting with members of The Star Catchers, a group of Lifelong Compensatory Education students who perform well known songs throughout the state.
The ensemble first formed in 2006 when they performed at the Stokes Stomp and have been going strong ever since.
Kris Jonczak, the Compensatory Education instructor at the Stokes Opportunity Center, said the members of the Star Catchers are composed of students aged 24 to 65 with a variety of disabilities ranging from autism to downs syndrome to traumatic brain injuries.
Jonczak said when she started teaching at the Stokes Opportunity Center through Forsyth Tech 10 years ago the curriculum for the students was limited to basic life skills.
“It was pretty boring,” she said. “So we started going out and doing free things like going to the library or to the senior center. Then we got a little grant money form Forsyth Tech and we were able to start performing at places.”
Kent was treated to several of the songs in The Star Catchers repertoire during his visit to the center last Thursday. The show opened with a performance by Elvis, followed by Otis Redding's “Sitting on the dock of the bay,” the Blues Brothers and rendition of Amazing Grace which brought a tears to the eyes of Kent's wife Sue.
The songs were just part of the wide variety the group offers when it visits local churches and civic organizations to perform. But The Star Catchers are not just limited to local performances, having presented their show as far away as a Philadelphia Rotary club and the governor's mansion in Raleigh.
The performances are just a part of the arts based curriculum offered by Jonczak.
“They love the art and the singing,” she said. “We saw that this is the right thing to do. They are told their whole lives that they can't do something and now they are the stars. We just kept doing it, and after three years the state said we could change the curriculum statewide, in part because of what we were doing here.”
Her classes, which meet three times a week, still offer basic life skills.
“There is still history and geography and finance,” said Jonczak. “They still get the basic things like your name, address and phone number, but now we also have music and dance and art.”
And they get to share their unique talents with the world. Jonczak said her students perform outside of the center at least twice a month and also organize art shows to raise funds for their activities.
“I have seen my students blossom and grow through the creativity offered in art,” said Jonczak. “These are students who are lifelong students. I think they should enjoy everything that the rest of us have.”
In discussing a painting by a student named James Joyce, she describes how it opened up a new side of him.
“Everything he does is very linear, very exact,” she said. “But when we did this art show, he was able to be creative with his art piece and have some curves in it, and some designs that he had never done before.”
That feeling of self-worth is something Jonczak tries to impart to all the students.
“I try to find something for everyone,” she says, “because everyone cannot be in the play, and everyone can't do a painting. So that's the strength of the program, that everyone is able to do something and feel successful.”
Walk into their classroom on any given day and you might find the students working on a mural, singing a song or, very likely, dancing.
“They love to dance,” Jonczak says, and they're pretty good at it. Whether it's old favorites like the hokey pokey or the Cupid shuffle, or something they're learning for the first time, you can see the joy on their faces as they move and groove to the music.”
The students will be presenting an art show and fundraiser at Divine Llama Vineyards on Oct. 11. The event will feature work by the students and performance by The Star Catchers.
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes. Tech Quarterly, a publication of Forsyth Tech contributed to this article.