Next Steps Impact: Noah's Story

Next Steps student and intern, Noah Wells, and his mom
By Susan Wiedmeyer

On September 19, 2017, we welcomed 85 community leaders to learn more about First Stage at our annual ImpACT event. In addition to hearing from our keynote speaker Danae Davis, Executive Director of Milwaukee Succeeds, attendees also learned more about the three pillars of our organization and how each one makes an impact on Milwaukee—one young person at a time.

One such young person is Noah Wells, a nineteen year old from Wauwatosa, who has become a familiar face around First Stage. Since the program’s founding six years ago, Noah has participated in Next Steps.

Next Steps expands our Theater Academy classes to young people with developmental disabilities—both verbal and non-verbal students, students with classic autism, PDD-NOS, other sensory processing disorders and Asperger’s—allowing each student to take his or her “next step” as an artist and as a person. Through Next Steps, First Stage creates a safe and welcoming environment where students can explore creativity, learn at their own pace, and be themselves without judgment or fear of failure. Guided by our philosophy of teaching life skills through stage skills, students participate in acting and musical theater classes led by a team of highly trained teaching artists and special education professionals.

For the past four years, Noah has been hired to work as a Theater Academy Intern thanks to funding from the Rosemary Kennedy Initiative of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Office of VSA (Very Special Arts).

Due to the VSA grant, First Stage is able to provide paid internships for older students with intellectual disabilities and high-functioning autism. In the past five years, First Stage has provided the necessary accommodations to engage 16 Academy interns ages 15-22 with special needs. Through this unique leadership experience, First Stage provides these students the opportunity to serve as program leaders and role models while learning critical thinking, communication, teamwork, and problem solving skills. Next Steps also provides internships for typically developing high school Theater Academy students. Through this collaborative experience, the program helps build awareness and acceptance by bridging the gap between young people without disabilities and students on the autism spectrum.

At the ImpACT event, Brenna Kempf, First Stage’s Associate Academy Director and Director of Next Steps interviewed Noah and his mom, Barbara Wells, and heard the following ways in which First Stage has made a difference in their life.

Can you tell me about an important life skill that you learned at First Stage?

Noah: “First Stage has taught me to keep a happy attitude while I follow directions and have fun with my classmates and teachers.”

Barbara:Noah’s older brother was fortunate to experience Theater Academy classes when he was young. When the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center was built, he was delighted to attend for almost a full day—‘just like college’ he would tell me! This is a welcoming place, a family place, an innovative place where students can thrive—learning life skills (even though they may not always realize it) through stage skills!”

What do you like about being a student at First Stage?

Noah: “I like doing the First Stage Academy Cheer. It reminds me to work hard on being positive, confident, and proud of who I am.”

Barbara: “Our story as a First Stage family didn’t stop short just because our second son was born with special needs. When I first learned about the Next Steps initiative, I was awestruck at the wisdom First Stage had to take a leap and establish opportunities for those with special needs. They carefully organized and continually refine the Next Steps program to employ many of the intervention techniques well known by those with special needs, and their families. Equally important, Next Steps maintains the power and magic of the traditional Academy programming. And, I must add—all this is done with great empathy for each student and the special challenges they face. Then—as if that wasn’t enough for us—we were grateful that Noah was given the chance to be an Intern just like all the other Interns through the VSA grant.  And, just to tell you how ‘full circle’ this all has been for our family—Noah’s brother, Merrick, volunteered as an Intern for the inaugural Next Steps session in 2012. This is the essence of inclusion and this is why I believe First Stage is a gem in our community—and beyond, worthy of our support.”

What do you like about being an intern?

Noah: “I like to help the teachers and be a good role model for the students.”

Barbara: “The VSA Internship opportunity has continued to be a significant and positive experience for Noah. With the completion of 80 hours, his sense of pride and accomplishment is evident.”

How do you feel you have grown as an intern?

Noah: “I think that being an intern has helped me to be better at staying calm and patient. I think I have grown mature and I understand that the teachers and students are counting on me to do my best.”

This summer you were an intern for a younger group of students. What was that like?

Noah: “I liked helping the young kids have fun and be confident. Sometimes I made them laugh with my beat boxing just like I did with the older students. I liked that they all know my name and I tried to get to know their names, too.”

How do you feel about your involvement with First Stage?

Noah: “I feel happy, proud and thankful for my friends at First Stage.”

As you know, it takes a village—a community—to help our young people reach their full potential. Milwaukee is fortunate to have a group of educators, business leaders, government entities, nonprofits, parents and other civic and community movers and shakers—like you—who believe in our youth and want to see them succeed. Thank you! Learn More about Next Steps

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