Some 32 Farmington students took part in an event in Ste. Genevieve for the second year, forging friendships and giving some students a rare chance to stand in the limelight.
The Jellybean Festival was first held in 2014 after a drama teacher in Mexico, Missouri was inspired by a play called “Jellybean Conspiracy.” The festival looks to provide intellectually disabled students from grades 6 through 12 with the opportunity to perform a talent in front of others.
Farmington High School Drama Teacher Diana Mays-Nielson said the festival is a very open-ended experience for students with special needs.
“It’s basically a festival where students with disabilities are partnered with ‘buddy coaches,’ and they perform,” she said. “They can do anything from sing to dance—the list is pretty wide open. We had one kid that did a poem of his own creation and another that played the drums. They get to pretty much have the spotlight for a few minutes in a packed room.”
Mays-Nielson, along with special education staff Kayla Pratte and wrestling Coach Ryan Wadlow attended the festival over the weekend, each saying that the Ste. Genevieve organizers did a great job of making sure the “jellybeans” were performing to a full crowd.
“Ste. Genevieve was really great about bringing their classes over,” Mays-Nielson said. “They rotated them in and out, so it wasn’t just high school kids, but elementary kids and middle school kids as well, so it was a packed auditorium the entire time.”
“I was really impressed with the positive environment that Ste. Gen fostered throughout the whole day,” Wadlow agreed. “They were constantly switching in and out classes and had the auditorium packed. It was great.”
The “jellybeans,” or students with intellectual disabilities, are paired with another student “buddy coach” before the festival, and together the two decide on a talent for the jellybean to showcase.
“We match them based on interest,” Pratte said. “We let the jellybeans decide what type of talent that would like to display and then we kind of help match them up with their buddy coaches based on that. Then the buddy coach helps narrow it down specifically to what they’re going to do, how they’re going to do it and the other details. Then the jellybean can have their buddy help coach help as much as needed or they can just be there for support. It’s kind of the jellybean’s decision.”
Mays-Nielson said one of the unique things about the festival is the degree of freedom it gives to the participating students in deciding their performance and how much involvement their buddy coach will have.
“Another thing I like to see is that when they’re done with their performance or whatever they do, so many of them walk off the stage like they’re king of the world,” she said. “They own that stage and they are so proud. I’m amazed that there is an entire auditorium and they have no problem whatsoever performing.”
Senior Grace Gilliam participated in the Jellybean Festival as a buddy coach for the last two years. She said the festival was a valuable experience for the jellybeans, but for the other buddy coaches like her.
“It was really humbling,” she said. “It was nice to be a part of something bigger and to get to see them having fun while doing what they love.”
While Gilliam will be graduated before the next Jellybean Festival, she hopes that she will be able to return to see next year’s, which might be relatively easy for Farmington grads as next year’s event will be hosted by Farmington High School.
Mays-Nielson said she and the other organizers hope that by bringing the event to Farmington for a year, members of the community will have the opportunity to come out to the festival and see what it is all about.
“I think the idea is to get as many faculty and other students to see what goes on and then hopefully raise not only awareness, but compassion and then integrate that into the school culture,” she said. “I personally think that it is very much an opportunity to change the school culture and make us more compassionate and caring.”
Pratte said the organizers have already been discussing the best way to get other schools involved in the Jellybean Festival by bringing their own students to join Farmington’s and Ste. Genevieve’s. Mays-Nielson said even if other schools don’t immediately jump on the bandwagon, they might at least be more likely to visit the festival next year with it being closer to home.
“I think if they come and see one, they’ll realize that they need to do this,” she said. “That’s the key. So, maybe if they don’t bring student, they’ll bring their administrators or faculty and they’ll want to get involved.”
Pratte said in addition to having the opportunity to perform before a crowd, the jellybeans also have the ability to create friendships with their buddy coaches and others that share the stage.
“Our kids are able to make social advancements by leaps and bounds just because of this event,” she said.
Wadlow said when students see other students getting involved as buddy coaches, it encourages more to get involved and follow their example.
“For the school, it sets the example of leading by example,” he said. “When these kids see the leaders in the school community doing these things for these other kids, it promotes the idea of more kids doing the same.
“I think it really impacts our kids—not only getting to be in the spotlight, but through the bonds and networks that it creates because of the event. This morning, I had one kid stop by just to say, ‘hi,’ to the boys. He had never stopped by before, but he came by today. I thought that was pretty neat.”
“Other than Special Olympics, there’s really not much for them to get involved in,” Pratte said. “This is really the only non-athletic option that they have. We’re hoping to make it a club so that it’s a year-long thing, with them doing events together.”