The Journey to Special Stars
A New $20,000 Grant for 2022!
Every Christmas Elias Barahona wanted to be Joseph in a nativity play. But he never had the opportunity to play this role.
You see, Elias has Down’s Syndrome. Other children would be selected to play Joseph, but not the then 11-year-old.
Elias’ mom, Anayanci, wondered: “What if there was a nativity play for special needs kids?” But no one ever took her up on this idea.
Then in October 2018, she started talking with Nitza Salazar, the new children’s ministry director for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in western Washington , about her son’s dream. She said: “Is it possible to have a Christmas program where my son can be Joseph?”
As Salazar listened to the mother’s heart, she said: “You know, we’re going to make this happen! This year, your son will be Joseph!”
Salazar started calling area churches of various denominations asking if they had any children with special needs and if they had any resources to contribute. Churches and community clubs jumped on board to donate performance space, costumes, scripts, decorations, radio headsets, advertising, reception food, and more.
“We barely had a month to prepare because the mom shared her dream with me at the end of October and the only available date to perform was the first weekend of December,” Salazar remembers.
Elias and his mom Anayanci
Whether Salazar was at the grocery store, the pharmacy, a thrift store, or calling churches or community clubs, she kept telling people about the boy who wanted to be Joseph and the plans for an inclusive Christmas play.
Twenty-five children participated in the first “Little Drummer Boy” program in December 2018. Elias was Joseph alongside wisemen, shepherds, angels and Mary.
“We filled the church with more than 500 people,” Salazar recalls. “Everybody shined. One mom cried when she saw her “wise man” son in a wheelchair transformed into a walking camel. She told me: ‘I’ve never seen a kid in a wheelchair treated as a king.’”
Most of the kids came back for the second year in 2019 to an even larger church auditorium in Auburn, Wash., for the “We Three Kings” evening. Some still wanted their same roles, others were open to new roles. Elias, for example, wanted to be a shepherd. They came back happy, excited and with their friends to be part of this talent show.
“I love how our community is embracing this program,” Salazar says. “Not only our churches, but our community. This is unique. This is something new. Everyone is excited about this program. They aren’t seeing it anywhere else. The parents don’t see their kids up on stage often. Some of the parents told me this is the first time they saw their kids on stage. We have all kinds of needs, and it is so beautiful to give them a place where they can shine.”
Special Stars gives children of all abilities an inclusive chance to shine. Children with disabilities do not often have the opportunity to share their talents in front of big audiences. This stage is made for them!
Along the way, Salazar and a growing team of volunteers needed to learn more about the needs of special kids.
“I started reading. I talked with teachers. I talked with parents: How can I make your kids comfortable?” she says.
Parents, for example, requested a quiet room for autistic kids with little furnishings beyond a couch, a heavy blanket and noise cancelling headphones to help in overwhelming moments.
Children in wheelchairs needed stage access, and as most churches do not have ramps, the planning team figured out requirements for making a temporary ramp.
In addition, the team learned that the kids needed to have snacks and water available every two hours.
The production isn’t heavy on lights or sound so kids won’t feel uncomfortable. There isn’t a lot of stimulation. The storyline narration, read by retired teacher Harold Richards, is simple and short.
Salazar shares: “When I contact the kids, I ask them: ‘What would you like to do? Sing? Say something?’ They tell me what they would like to do. It’s a talent program where they can have the spotlight, and everyone can enjoy their gift.”
Different talents, by cast members ranging from 7 months to age 31 and averaging about age 12, include playing an instrument, saying a Bible verse, singing, acting or sharing sign language — with varying levels of stage freight. Siblings, friends, parents, or caregivers are often right alongside the performers.
“Our audience is very forgiving,” Salazar says. “They love those time when kids come on stage. They take videos and pictures. It’s so adorable to see the kids performing. The parents love and treasure this so much to see their kids on stage.“
A perfect Down's nativity family
Community mom, Desiree White, is always looking for activities for her two adopted special needs children: Mila, age 14, from Albania, and Isaac, age 9, from China.
Last year, her children participated in the “Little Drummer Boy” program as a drum-playing shepherd and as an angel — complete with sparkly white boots! They had so much fun that they came back this year, still as a shepherd and now as Mary.
“I was leary at first,” White admits. “I didn’t know who was calling me from a different church, denomination, and city. I talked with them to hear their heart. When I heard the phrase, ‘We want to make sure that every child who ever wanted to be Joseph and Mary have a chance,’ I started crying and said yes to participating.”
Mila grew up in a Catholic orphanage in Albania. She has a picture of Mary in her room, and so it was an honor for her to play Mary — so much so that her mom had to explain to her that she wasn’t the “real” Mary!
“I held baby Jesus!” Mila proclaims. “Special…to hear Mary Did You Know.”
This was a song she heard at the orphanage!
“She was thrilled to hold a 7-month-old baby with Down’s Syndrome,” Salazar says. “She was kissing the baby throughout the program! She embraced her role as a Mary. She felt so privileged to carry that baby.”
On the front row, White proudly watched alongside Sandra Clayton whose son, Samuel, age 13, was playing Joseph. The moms leaned close to each other and whispered: “Look at that perfect Down’s family!”
“As a family, we spend a lot of time advocating for our kids whether in school, community, society, and sometimes even in church communities,” White says. “Being pursued for this experience was unbelievably special. My kids were able to worship the Lord freely with the gifts and talents that they have.”
Later, White told Salazar that she had never seen a church care so much about children with special needs. Additionally, she blogged about her family’s experience on her Adoption Seed blog.
White writes: “Nonverbal but loves to rock out on a Paw Patrol guitar? Excellent. Solo to Oh Come All Ye Faithful. Cerebral Palsy and in a wheelchair? Awesome. We'll design camels around your chair so you can be a wiseman. On the autism spectrum, gets overwhelmed easily but has a stellar memory? Super. Here are some noise canceling headphones and a key scripture to recite to the audience. Sign language? Perfect. Lead a hearing group in signing Silent Night. Every person, skill and passion is stamped valuable in this most beautiful of pageants.”
Special Christmas Artwork
And the dream is growing! Did you know there are very few paintings of Jesus with children with disabilities? At the Christmas program in 2021, Salazar will be presenting a commissioned piece of art that expresses the wide spectrum of disabilities.
"All our children should feel valued and accepted and normalize disabilities," Salazar explains. "I’d like to give each participating child a copy of a painting that includes them and Jesus. We have an artist - Daniel Gallardo from Mexico - secured to illustrate each of the 70 children."
The children, their parents, and many siblings came to a photoshoot in summer 2021 where Gayardo could capture their image to feature in the resulting artwork.
A More Special Night Artwork Introduction
Parents are valuing the connections they make with other special needs families to the point where they are wanting to stay in touch with each other throughout the year — and are looking at the possibility for additional performances for Easter or gathering at other events or occasions.
They want to share their contact information and find ways to stay in touch because this Christmas program bonded themselves with each other and the community. They feel like they belong, and they want to share this happiness. They want more kids to have this an opportunity to shine.
“I can see God looking at these kids and smiling,” Salazar says. “Every child is uniquely created with gifts and talents to exalt their Creator. And our ministry is blessed to come alongside families with special needs and celebrate their children. My desire, my dream, my prayer is for more churches and communities to embrace special needs families.”
This event was SOLD OUT! Thank you for your continued support & interest!
Virtual Christmas Program 2020
When Covid-19 prevented gatherings, our Special Stars still wanted to contribute to holiday cheer.
Impact of Covid-19
Children with disabilities have been significantly impacted by COVID-19 in multiple aspects of their lives. Mental health, depression, anxiety are all major problems children are facing, with children with disabilities even more so impacted. Those who have been improving on socialization skills, for example, have been forced to quarantine indefinitely causing backsliding in areas where improvements were once made.
"The Special Stars program helps to provide socialization and combat the effects the pandemic has had on mental health," Salazar says. "By allowing the children to have a goal and opportunity to look forward to, we are helping increase their resilience and overall mental health state. The children and parents keep telling me their desire to be back on stage because it makes them feel valued and important."
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