By Clay Riness  

 All through middle and high school, Onalaska alumni Sierra Lyon was deeply involved and in love with show choir. Now a 20-year-old student at Viterbo, she’s still not letting go of it. This story, however, takes a profoundly moving twist.

All through middle and high school, Onalaska alumni Sierra Lyon was deeply involved and in love with show choir. Now a 20-year-old student at Viterbo, she’s still not letting go of it. This story, however, takes a profoundly moving twist.

“So, I came up with this idea after living for a couple months with a family who has kids with special needs,” she says. “We were kind of joking, like … ‘oh, they’d be so good at show choir.’ But then I thought … wait, they really would be good at show choir! I did some research and found that there are no opportunities even close to offering show choir for kids like that. Show choir is all about singing and dancing and performing on stage. Our goal is to give kids that wouldn’t ordinarily have the opportunity for show choir a chance to do just that.”

She worked with her former director at Onalaska High School, Richard Moses, asking him if it was something he’d like to try. His answer was an enthusiastic “Yes! Go for it!” From there, she says, it just kind of took off. Her newly formed 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Abilities in Harmony, an adaptive show choir program, fits that bill.

All Are Welcome

“Any student in middle or high school with special needs is welcome in our camps, so we have a lot of kids with autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. The first of our camps was in July 2017; we had eight kids at that camp. It was such a success that we’ve now had four camps here in the La Crosse area,” she explains.

The second camp, she adds, included 16 kids, and now they’ve split things into two camps because it’s grown so large. This summer, camps will be held around the state and even expand into Minnesota.

“We typically have a three-day camp. We spend time learning the dance choreography, the vocals, and then also just playing games and getting to know the participants and the volunteers,” she says. “Every single special needs student is matched up with someone who’s been in show choir, is an alumni or a special needs teacher, which we have a lot of in this area. We pull in volunteers from UW-L, Viterbo, Western Technical College, and then we also have juniors and seniors in high school that are able to help. So, it’s been really cool for these kids who’ve never done anything like this, and for the volunteers to get to give back through doing something that they love so much.”

You’re Gonna Hear Me Roar

It’s certainly working. So many people want to volunteer that the organization can’t accommodate everyone. So many special needs kids want to get into camp that signing up has to be done first come, first serve. This summer, Lyon hopes, will be an opportunity for everyone who wants in to do so, because there will be so many camps.

At the camps, kids learn to sing and dance in a variety of musical genres. Justin Timberlake hits, songs from musicals, songs like “Get On Your Feet,” “Hit the Road Jack,” and Katy Perry’s blockbuster hit, “Roar” … that’s just a taste of what you might hear. “The kids are just so excited to be on stage singing and dancing,” she says. “I think our most popular song was ‘Roar.’ They all just loved doing that one and we’ll definitely be bringing that one back for another camp.”

Kids with any level of need are accepted into the camps. Some are very high-functioning and don’t even need a full one-on-one with a volunteer. Other kids may require two or three volunteers, depending on the level of help and direction they need. “We’re willing to accommodate any need. The parents are also welcome to stay if they’d like. A lot of parents just sit and watch and make sure everything goes well for their child. It’s been a really fun way of building a whole new community of these parents and these kids, who are now seeing each other more and more.”

Just as there are varying levels of ability, there are also varying levels of confidence, says Lyon. “Some of these kids, they love to sing and dance when they’re at home with their family, but on stage it’s a whole different thing. Some of them, who have been at more than one camp, seem to come out of their shell a little more from camp to camp. First camp, kind of hesitant, you know, second camp, maybe I’ll do a solo, nope, next camp, do a solo!”

Showtime!

All camps end with a performance, and it is open to the public free of charge. “So far, we’ve actually paired them up with show choir performances already happening at Onalaska High School, so that’s been fun,” she says. “We have dinner with the other show choir kids, and last summer we even did a conjoined number with Onalaska’s High School Show Choir.”

Abilities in Harmony makes it very easy to sign up for a camp. One way is to sign up online on their website. They recruit for La Crosse camps from all over the region. Special education teachers send out information to the families of special needs kids, raising awareness. The organization is also very active on its Facebook page, another place you can sign up.

“There is a $25 fee for the camps because we have to pay for the music rights, T-shirts, food and things like that, but we would never, ever turn away a child if they were unable to pay,” explains Lyon. “There are also age limits. We accept kids ages 11 to 21, because special needs kids can stay in high school through the age of 21.”

Abilities in Harmony is fully funded by donations from individuals, fundraisers and a GoFundMe page. It is also actively seeking corporate sponsorship.

For more information, visit abilitiesinharmony.weebly.com, email adaptiveshowchoir@gmail.com, or find the Abilities in Harmony GoFundMe page at www.gofundme.com/abilities-in-harmony.