Danny B. wearing his Shining Stars Network t-shirt.Meet Danny B., a talented student in the Young Adult Program whose passion for singing has brightened his life, boosted his confidence and given him a night on a Broadway stage. Plus, get to know the performing arts organization that helped him on his way.

Danny’s journey began as a child in music therapy with “Jammin” Jenn Pacht-Goodman. Working together for several years, Danny’s skills improved rapidly and he appears in numerous promotional music videos on Youtube, where they sing together.

Danny joined the Academy360 Lower School in 2019 and took part in the A360 LS Holiday concert, where he showcased his skills by singing a rap titled Christmas Wrapping, and looked forward to taking part in Linda Feldman’s music classes.

However, the COVID-19 lockdown forced the closure of schools in the spring, and Danny’s mother Fiona was determined to find other outlets for Danny’s talent. Though partly due to the isolation brought on by pandemic restrictions, Fiona also believed the time had come where Danny needed a group experience where he could interact with others, have fun and potentially make friends.

Group photo of members of the Shining Stars Network.Fiona’s search brought her to the Shining Stars Network. Founded in 2012 by by Sally Curci, one of Academy360 Upper School’s longtime instructors, the Shining Stars Network’s mission is to provide opportunities for people with and without special needs to improve their singing, dancing and acting abilities, and to boost self-confidence and self-esteem.

His first performances with the program were virtual, where Sally and her team took on the mammoth-sized task of putting together a show where students of all ages and skills sang “together” – but not.

When social-distancing restrictions were lifted, Danny’s involvement with the program took off. Not only with his first love – singing – but also displaying a new-found interest in dancing, and receiving unexpected lessons in responsibility and self-discipline.

“Shining Stars is not an activity just for keeping busy. It’s no joke – they are working,” says Fiona. “They demand commitment to the program. It’s the ‘real deal.’ Sally is great, she’s giving directions and keeping the kids on track. Her ability to manage a range of skill levels and personalities is tremendous – the performers are hitting their marks. It demonstrates what they’re capable of when encouraged and required to put in the extra effort.”

All of that effort and discipline has taken Danny and his fellow shining stars in remarkable directions.

The Shining Stars Network was born out of an annual talent show and has grown into a non-profit that offers creative arts opportunities all year round, currently serving members of seven New Jersey counties. The group puts on several cabaret shows a year, including its wildly popular Christmas Spectacular. But this past year, members of the group were given the amazing opportunity to perform in front of a packed house at the Gershwin Theater.

Having received a grant from the “Arts for Autism” organization, Shining Stars was invited to participate in the Arts for Autism Broadway Benefit Concert, where Danny took part not just as a singer – but as a dancer too.Costumed performing arts students appear on stage at the Papermill Playhouse.

His interest in dance was unexpected, but no surprise to his mom. “He has a natural rhythm,” Fiona says. “He can find the beat and play any type of drum with ease.”

Danny loves being on stage, it brings him out of his shell, his mom adds. Since joining with Shining Stars, they see that he is way more comfortable in putting himself out there. Fiona has seen his confidence grow as time goes on, especially in his curtain calls – which are each performer’s solo time in the spotlight.

This August brought about another milestone for the Shining Stars Network and its participants. Their Summer Showcase took place on the main stage of the Paper Mill Playhouse, complete with a full dress rehearsal under the lights – a first for this ever-growing group.

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The Shining Stars perform a medley of songs by the Beatles at the Paper Mill Playhouse this August.

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What does it take to be a Shining Star? Perhaps most of all, it is the courage to try.

“We just throw them into it, and it can be a little overwhelming to begin with, but they thrive,” Sally says. “There’s no pressure about perfection or who’s the best – it’s about trying your best, and having a good time.”

Sally continues, “Shining Stars is open to everyone. Danny has talent, and he’s being challenged to deliver at the next level. But even if a participant doesn’t have great talent, they find a way to highlight their capabilities and give them a way to contribute to the show. Everyone is involved, not just present. ”

This is most important for the Shining Stars founder. It doesn’t matter what they do, as long as we help them along the way,” Sally says. “The goal is to get them to generalize that confidence into other areas of their lives.”

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Shining Stars also gives Danny and the other participants the chance for something not always readily available to young adults with special needs: a social life. Rehearsals and other commitments give everyone a chance to spend time together and form valuable connections.

Shining Stars currently has approximately 35 participants, most either on the autism spectrum or with Down Syndrome, and who range from 14 to 37  years of age. In addition to the performers are the all-important neurotypical “buddies,” who work side-by with the Stars. These volunteers come from local high schools or are often siblings of previous buddies who were drawn to the program. Many of these volunteers go on to study special education in college.

“He wants, needs, that connection with others,” says Danny’s mom. “The “buddies” are the people Danny talks about most. I think he identifies more with them than the performers at times, and he’s looking for those age-appropriate connections with people who share his interests. And he doesn’t always have the opportunity to do so.”

Sally remarks on the transformation in Danny since joining the program:

“It was difficult for Danny when we were online. For him, being in person made a huge difference. He became more cognitive, more social, just more into it once he knew he could do it,” she says. “Now, he moves to the front, he takes a lead, he will always jump in if asked – if we need someone to step in, we can ask Danny. He’s beginning to mentor the new people, unsolicited, it’s really sweet. He’s come a long way, it’s beautiful to see.”

Find out more about the Shining Stars Network at their website: https://shiningstarsnetwork.org/

Learn about Music Therapy at Academy360: New Music is Playing at Academy360