Arms Open Wide presents ‘The Wizard of Oz’ at the Lyceum Theatre in May

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Rubio’s Performing Arts Center on Main Street emanates laughter, singing, dancing—the sounds of people having a good time. Here, classes are taught, rehearsals are done for upcoming plays, fun happens spontaneously and frequently, and friendships are formed. What makes it different is the fact that Rubio’s was founded for people special needs, and it keeps growing.

Rubio’s Performing Arts Center on Main Street emanates laughter, singing, dancing—the sounds of people having a good time. Here, classes are taught, rehearsals are done for upcoming plays, fun happens spontaneously and frequently, and friendships are formed. What makes it different is the fact that Rubio’s was founded for people special needs, and it keeps growing.

It has grown into stage productions at the Lyceum Theater, for four years in a row. Starting May 15 and going to May 21, The “Wizard of Oz” will run at the Lyceum Theater downtown, featuring up to 70 kids and adults from Arms Wide Open, a non-profit organization based out of Rubio’s Performing Arts Center.

Apart from the productions, up to 120 children and adults with special needs—autism, epilepsy, learning and physical disabilities, Down’s syndrome, Asperger’s syndrome, cerebral palsy and developmental delays, to name a few, are involved with Rubio’s Performing Arts Center. They take classes, participate in productions, or both.

It all started because Chris Rubio, a 1999 graduate of Valhalla High School, has an autistic brother and saw the need for an outlet for special needs kids. The Performing Arts Center has been around for 14 years, but AWO began in 2007, becoming non-profit in 2008.

“My brother is my main inspiration. This is a good way for them to express themselves. Last year we did Aladdin and sold out every show. We’re not here to make money, we’re here to make opportunities for these kids. It’s been a blessing,” Rubio said.

From the vibrant atmosphere at the studio, especially the buzz of activity pre-production during dress rehearsals, the center and AWO appears to be a blessing for everyone involved.

“Melodie didn’t have much of a social life until she came to Arms Wide Open,” said Elizabeth Hambrick, musical director and mom of Melodie, who is double-casted as Glinda, Dorothy (and an apple tree, for good measure) in Oz. “After she got in the program, her senior year at Granite Hills, she got special-ed student of the year. Arms Wide Open boosted her self-esteem, and now I can’t even hold her back!”

Rehearsals happen up to five times a week before production, and that is just a small part of what goes into a show. Sets need to be built, marketing needs to get done. Parent volunteers like AWO father Gordon Page help build the set, including the creation of a Yellow Brick Road that lights up. AWO has a family atmosphere, and family involvement has proven beneficial.

“I grew up doing CYT, which gave me my wings,” said Rubio, who acts, sings, dances and is also a comedian.

When it comes to AWO, he is modest about his role, giving credit to his staff, volunteers, organizations that help like the San Diego Repertory Theater and the staff at the Lyceum. Rubio credits and praises the special needs group he works with day in, day out. Some of the kids who came to the center at first could not read or intonate, now they are reciting lines and singing.

“You forget these kids are special need when you come to the show, it’s unbelievable what they do,” he said.

Unbelievable and constructive, evidently. Those with special needs at AWO and the center have such a strong social connection and identity with the staff and friends that their health and self-sufficiency has improved. Heather Atkinson, who will play Dorothy and an Ozian, suffers from an extremely rare form of epilepsy, with seizures triggered by multiple, everyday factors. Still, she has rehearsed up to five nights a week for a production that takes an average of nine months to pull together.

“A couple years ago I was making trips up to LA for testing, I could barely leave my house, now I’m friends with, like seventy kids,” said Atkinson.

Stories like that are why Rubio and his staff do what they do, why Rubio teaches classes all day then does rehearsals at night. It is all non-profit, volunteer-based, but the impact his center and organization has for individuals and families can’t be measured in hours, tax forms, or fees. He feels he is doing what he was meant to do, with the people and a profession he cares deeply about.

“I love the arts, and if I can do it on a level where I make a difference, that is what it’s all about,” Rubio said. “God gave me the talent to use, and express, and that’s what I want to do.”

For tickets and information on the upcoming production of “The Wizard of Oz” presented by Arms Wide Open, call 619-579-6197 or 619-544-1000.

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