WEST JORDAN Spencer Norton generally doesn't stand out in a crowd. He's quiet and shy. Once he gets to the Jordanelle Reception Center in West Jordan on Wednesdays, however, his timidity disappears.
Norton is one of about 2,000 children in Utah who belong to Up With Kids, a nonprofit, musical theater performance group.
Up With Kids was started 22 years ago by Shauna Livingston, who wanted a positive artistic outlet for her daughter. Although it was first launched to help children appreciate artistic talents, the program, which operates in local groups across the Wasatch Front, really is for anyone, talented or not.
"We tailor our parts so they are specifically what those kids can do," said Amber Williams, the North Ogden and Brigham City director for Up With Kids.
Up With Kids invites anyone to join the program, ages 4 and up and with any degree of ability. The program also caters to children with disabilities if they decide to attend. Williams said several children with Down syndrome and spina bifida are participating this year.
Up With Kids, which can be found in cities from Brigham City to Spanish Fork, is not a competition-driven organization. Every child who participates is written into the play every child is a character; every child has a speaking part.
"We feel that there is plenty of room down the road for rejection. It really is a special, safe, happy place for a lot of children," said Nancy Scott, West Jordan and Sandy director, who has worked with Up With Kids for 17 years
The programs run from September to May, culminating with a play. About 28 plays are performed throughout the state in May, Williams said.
Each year, the play is designed to appeal to both boys and girls.
The group has done "Peter Pan" in the past, and this year's play is "The Little Mermaid's Adventure with Pirates of the Caribbean."
The various Up With Kids groups throughout Utah focused on the pirate aspect earlier this month in honor of "National Talk Like a Pirate Day."
From greetings of "ahoy, matey" to calls of "you scalawag!" the little pirates learned the pirate ways, except for plundering, of course. They even were given pirate names, from Scary Eye Emma to Smelly Hat Rosa.
Up With Kids is not just about helping children develop acting, dancing and singing talents it's about engendering self-confidence.
The parents enjoy the program just as much as the kids do.
"It's a great opportunity for kids," said Amy Norton, Spencer's mother.
"It helps with their self esteem ... it appeals to a wide variety of kids, both boys and girls."
Rebecca Berrett's two children, 5-year-old Ashton and 9-year-old Gillian, just started the program, and they both love it.
"They can act out and play pretend," said Rebecca Berrett. "They like the topic (of the play) and the association with the other kids."
Scott said the intent of the organization is to give children the feeling that they have a place.
"We are not in the business of making childhood stars out of these kids. We are in the business of giving self-confidence," she said.
Participation comes at a relatively low cost as well, with a $35 monthly tuition fee and a one-time $50 material fee. The fees go to cover the overhead, Williams said.More information about Up With Kids can be found at www.upwithkids.com.
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