Subkrewe of kids with autism debut in Chewbacchus parade

Seven young members of the latest subkrewe gathered in a circle for a final drum practice on Saturday (Jan. 23) afternoon at the NOLArts Learning Center in New Orleans.

Alongside the musicians, who were each dressed in self-made uniforms designed to mirror stormtroopers from Star Wars, stood Clyde Casey, an artist and musician from the IDIYA New Orleans Makerspace.

"Who wants to start the rhythm?" Casey asked.

"Me," said an enthusiastic 11-year-old Rocco Trentecosta.

Equipped with homemade percussions and harmonicas engraved with their names, the STOMP Troopers soon dived into practice as their parents and volunteers looked on. It wasn't long until Rocco began playing his harmonica as he danced in the circle during practice. 

As the first ever krewe of young people with autism, STOMP Troopers will debut in the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus parade Saturday (Jan. 30) at 7 p.m. They will march behind a jazz band from the historic Preservation Hall and will also have a premium position at the front of Chewbacchus.

The idea for the krewe originated when art therapist Kate Lacour attended last year's Chewbacchus. Lacour said she thought about how the sci-fi culture of the krewe appealed to many of the children she worked with. Parents might worry their children will draw attention to them if they bring them to events with a lot of random action and noise, but Lacour said children "with the right support" and training will not only behave well in the audience, but can also be a part of the event.

After talking with Chewbacchus, Lacour said the krewe and Preservation Hall were eager to let the members participate. Lacour said it was important for special needs children and young adults to engage in this sort of activity so they can make social connections.

Although there are structured programs where children with autism and special needs can socially engage, Lacour said programs and performances at special needs schools "tend to stay" within that community alone "like a silo." Lacour said both New Orleans and Chewbacchus have the "do what you wanna" feel to it that lets the members express themselves.

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"They have all these great eccentric, amazing ideas to offer," Lacour said.

Lacour used slideshows during each of their meetings to teach them about sci-fi and to provide them with instructions for their performance in the krewe. She also showed the members how to sew electroluminescent wires into their costumes, which let them illuminate their uniforms with a switch on their wrist. Random noises from the parade experience seemed to be a challenge for the members, Lacour said. The volunteers will provide the members with headphones during their march should anyone need them.

The New Orleans native members range from ages 9 to 21 and express a different level of enthusiasm toward Star Wars itself. Some members like the franchise, like 21-year-old Oliver Sobrino whose favorite character is Darth Vader. Other members are more interested in the music.

"My mom is more of a Star Wars fan than I am," said 13-year-old Jhett McAdams.

Lacour said the inspiration for the name and instruments came from Jhett, a member of the subkrewe who liked the percussion group Stomp. 

On their last day day of practice, Casey gave each of them harmonicas, and he encouraged them to carry the instrument with them at all times in case they ever need to play "Happy birthday" for someone they encounter. Jhett thanked Casey for the "excellent gift."

Having identified a passion for music, Jhett spent time during the meeting asking Casey what key their harmonica was in. Jhett also spoke with Simon Brickman, 14, about ways to play the cymbals. 

Simon's father, Bob, said Simon was always into performance work.

"He used to be with Encore and they did a lot of performance art," Brickman said.

Although Lacour said she enjoyed helping and working with so many people to ensure the members could march, there were some drawbacks in the process. Children as young as 6, for instance, or those who were wheelchair bound were not a part of the subkrewe.

Lacour said because this is their first year, they wanted to keep the range of children small for now. With the aid of grants and more staff next year, Lacour said she hopes the subkrewe will grow given that she has already seen them find a sense of identity.

"They're serving the community rather than being served by doing this," Lacour said.