Jessica Jensen had tears in her eyes.
Happy tears, she hastened to say.
Jensen had just finished watching her daughters, Maddy, 9, and Aly, 7, perform in "Theater 101" -- the fifth and most recent performance by the Camp Munroe Theater Co., staged in August.
"It was beautiful. It was fantastic. Perfect. There are not enough words to say how good it was," Jensen said. "It was so good to see all the enthusiasm and how happy the kids are."
The Jensens are no strangers to the Munroe-Meyer Institute, which provides services for children and adults with disabilities and complex health needs. Maddy has been attending Camp Munroe, a summer camp for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, for seven years, Aly for five. Both attend the recreational therapy Saturday program and winter camp.
But the family loves everything about the theater program, a collaboration between the MMI Department of Recreational Therapy and Why Arts, a nonprofit art organization based at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The theater program began in 2017.
Since the first performance, the camp has continued to evolve, with each experience improving, said Carolyn Anderson, director of WhyArts. August's performance was again hosted by the Scottish Rite at its Masonic Center in downtown Omaha.
"Our artists have done this five times now, and we are really are into the routine," Anderson said. "We've worked with the MMI staff and everyone respects each other. Many of the campers have been here before, though we have several new campers this year. Our productions just keep getting better."
Camp Munroe Theater Co. director Erin Bentzinger agreed.
"This year, we took the theater camp to a whole new level by incorporating more of a curriculum into the program," she said. "The actors learned about sounds and light, set building and painting, costumes and props, choreography and music. They chose their own special interest and learned about it in the three-day workshop."
The new style definitely set the tone for the stellar final performance, she said.
"The actors were so excited to share all that they learned, and the audience could feel it. I am so proud of how hard everyone worked and to see the actors shine."
"It is so nice to see all the different kids with different abilities being included," Jensen said. "It's often hard to find something for kids in wheelchairs to be part of in the summertime, so I'm glad that these programs exist."
Jensen said she initially was reluctant to enroll her daughters in the theater program.
"I was encouraged by Erin," she said. "She said it would be good for them, and I'm grateful for that."
After taking part in two sessions of the theater camp, the girls have found they enjoy performing and interacting with their peers, their mother said.
"They love being around the different age groups, and hearing the kids talk and being included," she said. "And they like to dance, and they like music, so this encompasses all that."
Jensen wasn't the only audience member in tears at the August performance, noted Nicole Giron, MMI's interim director of recreational therapy.
"There were people in tears all over the audience," she said. "That is one of the reasons this is absolutely one of the department's favorite programs. The energy you feel here on the night of the show, when you see the kids and you see how proud they are . . . to see that energy come alive, that is for all of us what makes this a most powerful experience."
An after-party at the event was sponsored by Turner Construction, which provided refreshments for the performers and their families.
Excellent story, John. Congrats to all who made this happen. It's cool that MMI provides this wonderful developmental opportunity!