May 2015 was when the I CAN Network, one year into its high school program, stepped into its very first primary school: St Bernadette’s in Ivanhoe. They’d put together an amazingly Neurodiverse group from grades 2-6, all with very different interests and personalities.
Of course, we knew they all had one precious thing in common: their huge imaginations. Whether they were into Australian history, dragons, dancing, animal drawings, basketball, Lego, toy collecting, karate or the Avengers, they were all ridiculously creative.
They also loved their drama games. Give them a speech and you’d get varying levels of interest, but throw them some improv and suddenly everyone is hooked. As soon as you let them create their own story, they all followed along intently and worked as a team to make something very imaginative indeed.
Of course, they knew they’d also have their own time to shine and present a world that was entirely their own. Every student had the chance to do a show and tell, or an “Imagination Creation” on whatever they liked. Some of them were born public speakers, but had never had quite so much freedom before with the topic. Others astonished their teachers by giving the best talk of their life by far, to a very friendly audience. After each presentation, there would be heaps of excellent questions from the rest of the group. Early on, a little chocolate bribery ensured this would always be the case, but pretty soon we were able to take off the training wheels and watch them all go.
It’s much easier to listen to other people when you know they will always listen to you, and of course it’s much easier to talk, to let people into the world of your imagination, when you know you are truly being heard. For the kids we work with, and for my own primary school past self, this wouldn’t always happen in school. Long before my parents discovered I was autistic they knew I needed some sort of group, some sort of imaginative games club, where I could be myself and belong. They even suggested it to my first primary school, but they didn’t think something like that could ever work.
When we came to St Bernadette’s, an “Imagination Club” was exactly what we called this little group of ours. There I was at a small catholic primary school, just like the one I went to, except this one was willing to throw themselves into something new, something I would have loved to have and was thrilled to be giving to a new generation.
After Chris Varney, Chloe Stuart, Caitlin Downie-Kempson and I launched our very first Imagination Club, I was lucky enough to be there for the start of the St Andrew’s program, and even got to run another one at St Pius X. Just down the road from St Bernadette’s, the St Pius kids were an equally creative yet very different bunch. They loved to make very detailed PowerPoints about their areas of expertise, which were everything from dinosaurs to Five Nights at Freddy’s. They’d often work on these together, learning how to share the floor evenly with their partner. They would spend hours collecting dozens of facts and pictures to make something they were very proud of in the end. Even if they were sick that day or if their year level had the day off, they would come to school especially for the Imagination Club.
Finally, at Marymede Catholic College, I had the pleasure of guiding my long-time secondary mentees through running activities with my new primary school mentees. This group ended up being less formal, more focused on having one-on-one time and was much more relaxed, although still just as energetic. One of the staff at Marymede described our sessions as “mad but good,” which could very well sum up all of the Imagination Clubs, and indeed the whole journey of the I CAN Network.
The work with our I CAN juniors all culminated into one glorious celebration of difference on ‘Imagination Day,’ November 10th. St Bernadette’s hosted a fun-filled day for the St Andrew’s visitors from Clayton South and the St Patrick’s crew who came all the way from Kilmore. We’d run many camps with our high school students over the years, but never had we done something this big with our primary students.
The kids were all jumping with excitement to see what the other Imagination Clubs, and to show them everything that they’d achieved in their own club. St Andrew’s showed us their “Imagination Village,” which they all built together out of paper and cardboard; St Bernadette’s showed us a hilarious little drama skit that they’d been rehearsing for weeks; and St Patrick’s showed us a high-tech, tightly choreographed role play about adapting to your surroundings, as well as a wonderful video of the group’s year-long journey. Of course, they were all very proud to be showing off their hard work to their fellow I Canners. It was also beautiful to see how proud they were of each other, and how much interest and admiration they received from the crowd at the end of their presentations. If you can picture the buzz of their very first I CAN meeting, raise that to the power of three and you pretty much have the excitement of Imagination Day.
Of course, they were also there to meet one very special individual: the brand new Imagination Club mascot, Cam the Chameleon, who changes colour every time she experiences a different emotion. Our very own Nikki Wemyss introduced her to everyone in an amazing illustrated story titled “How Cam Discovered She Could Be Herself And Belong,” which is exactly what everyone in the Imagination Clubs are doing. On the day, they all got to draw and write about how the other animals helped Cam change from lonely to excited, sad to “cheeky” or adventurous, from being frustrated to feeling powerful, and from feeling scared to letting her true self shine through, which is just what we mentors have always wanted for our amazing mentees.
By Christian Tsoutsouvas