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Beaverton's 'STARS' attraction

Color guard team made up entirely of district special education students rocks the audience at Tigard's RhythmFest

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The Beaverton STARS color guard rehearses with members of Southridge High Schools color guard before performing at the Tigard RhythmFest at Tigard High School.The cheers just kept building as the final color guard team performed its drills at Tigard High School's RhythmFest competition on Saturday.

The 18 teammates waved flags or carried imitation rifles to the beat of Imagine Dragons’ “On Top of the World.”

By the time a beaming Emily Alleman danced across the mat-covered gymnasium floor brandishing a fake sword, the crowd of several hundred people was going nuts.

“Whoooooooooooooo!” they roared as confetti twirled to the floor.

The Beaverton STARS sure know how to put on a finale.

The Pacific Northwest’s only color guard team made up of students with learning disabilities is in its eighth year of bringing cheers — and plenty of proud tears — to the eyes of audiences across the region.

Alleman, 19, was on top of the world afterward.

“Exhilarating,” she said as one of the team’s most verbal members, but she could have been speaking for her 17 teammates when she added: “Very exhilarating.”Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Jeni and Katie, members of the Beaverton STARS color guard, play a game before performing at the Tigard RhythmFest.

“It’s a joyous thing. It’s an absolutely joyous thing to see,” said Kati McKee, Tigard High’s director of marching programs who invites the STARS back every year to conclude the state’s second-largest color guard competition. “They overcome so much to get out there and perform. They can get out there and be like every kid.”

Pat Carley, a physical therapist assistant who spends her days working with kids with disabilities across the Beaverton School District, founded the STARS a year or two after seeing a similar team from Florida take the floor at an international event.

“I watched and I was in tears,” Carley said. “At that point I thought, ‘Wow. The students I see could do that.’ So I started it.”

While most school-aged kids have numerous activities that fill their time outside class, children with significant learning disabilities have more limited options, Carley said.

“There’s not a whole lot of opportunities for these kids after school,” said Carley, who directs the program on her own time. “That bugs me to death.”Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The Beaverton STARS color guard rehearses with members of Southridge High Schools color guard before performing at the Tigard RhythmFest at Tigard High School.

“Our kids are very isolated,” said Raymond Panagopoulos, whose 18-year-old son Marsellas is a Beaverton STARS member. “This really brings them out among people. Everybody likes to get out and be loved.”

After the performance, Marsellas answered questions with one-word responses, spoken softly in the noisy gym, but the smile playing across his face said all he needed to express.

“Their eyes just light up,” said Holly Hooge, whose 14-year-old daughter Allyson is also on the team.

Echoing other parents’ sentiments, Emily’s mother said the STARS have provided a place where her daughter feels like she belongs.

“My daughter has one friend and she made that one friend through the STARS,” Cindy Alleman said. “They get to be themselves.”

Emily agreed: “This team is very accepting,” she said. “It’s been like my family away from my family.”

Carley opens up the Beaverton STARS to children in special education classes at any of the Beaverton School District’s middle and high schools before they start practicing each November. The team members’ diagnoses include Down syndrome, autism, spina bifida and intellectual disability. This year, there are 22 members, including four who missed the Tigard performance.

The members and their parents do fund-raising activities all year to help pay for equipment, special activities and the wages of one part-time liaison.

Carley has also has a small army of volunteers, including about two dozen general education students from area high schools who are helping meet their community service requirements by working with the STARS at practices and performances. Among the helpers are members of the Southridge Dance and Guard, including two students who developed this year’s STARS routine as their senior projects.

“They all love it and all really enjoy themselves,” said Gina Rizk, 17, who wrote this year’s STARS program with fellow Southridge senior Kerri Hamilton. “They all look forward to seeing you just as much as you (enjoy seeing them), and it’s really cool.”

Two Tigard High School students also help out, traveling to Beaverton for the STARS’ weekly practices beginning each fall at Meadow Park Middle School.

“The best thing in the world is to see their smile,” said Rennie McVicker, a Tigard junior who helps out with senior Abbi Reekie. “The whole audience, they light up. It’s, like, super cool.”

By Eric Apalategui
Beaverton Reporter
email: eapalategui@commnewspapers.com
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