Eighteen months ago, mother-of-four Perth teacher Michelle Varley was asked what her big dream was. The bubbly teacher had been told for years that she should be a Playschool presenter, with a strong background in theatre and her connection with children. Instead she went down the path of teaching and collected 25 years under her belt, 12 of those being for children with special needs. Harbouring a desire to do more for the children she taught, the question prompted Michelle to combine her talents and do something big.
"It became apparent there was nothing on television that represented the hundreds of thousands of kids with special needs or disabilities, or their families," Michelle explains. "So I came up with this idea of having some kind of TV show that wasn't about children with disabilities, I really didn't want it to be just aimed at that because people would turn on the telly and think it didn't relate to them. I wanted to create a program that appeals to everyone so the main objective of Coloured Spaghetti was to show families ideas of what to do with their children, emphasizing the importance of spending quality time together, even if it's just five minutes a day. The difference is I invite kids along with special needs to be a part of the show alongside regular kids."
Identifying a certain amount of money was needed to get Coloured Spaghetti out of her head and onto the television, Michelle used Gofundme fundraising website. Not-for-profit community TV production company The Couch agreed tofeature the show within their program, but required $450 per seven-minute episode to cover production costs.
"When I went to the Gofundme page it just went crazy and so many people contributed to it," Michelle says. "People I didn't even know, from all around the world were sharing and donating! They loved the idea and wanted to see these kids represented on TV."
Now two episodes in and eight to come, with the inaugural episode going to air in May, the response from those involved has proven to Michelle how important the program is to the community.
"The kids involved have really loved it, but for me, it has been very special to see their parents who are so proud and thrilled to see their kids out there in the forefront, rather than being pushed to the back," Michelle says. "We're showing these parents a different way of thinking as well, because a lot of parents have been taught by society to keep their kids quiet and not take them out, because you don't want to disturb the peace or have a child not behaving normally – whatever that is! So it's showing the parents, it's ok, this is them and they're a part of your family and they have every right to go out and be themselves just like any other child in the community and on television."
Helping mainstream kids understand and accept behaviour they might not have seen before is another crucial element to Coloured Spaghetti. Watching Michelle interact with the variety of kids featured on the program, both special needs and mainstream, is a subtle education on navigating the varied dynamics of the real world.
"Hopefully by watching the special needs kids being involved, they'll learn little bits about kids with disabilities, learn how to interact with them through watching me interact with them and perhaps it will dispel any fears or preconceived ideas," Michelle says. "We don't have any rehearsal time or editing, so we start recording and seven minutes later we have our show, which can be nerve wracking, but it's about representing real life. Sometimes the kids do have meltdowns on the show and I deal with it the best way I know how, it might work or it might not just like every day at school but if we have to wait, be patient or tolerant and learn to communicate in different ways – then that's what we do. Then we can give the public some insight so if they see someone behaving that way in the supermarket, they won't be afraid and turn around and walk away."
Creating acceptance is already happening in with both special needs and regular students from Michelle's school asking to be involved in future episodes. The next step is to grow the program in 2018 so more people have the opportunity to watch Coloured Spaghetti. The Couch is featured on Foxtel's Aurora channel, which has been a great starting point but to reach more eyes and hearts, Michelle would like to see the show available to all.
"Ideally, it will be on mainstream TV and it will be a household name or concept," Michelle says. "Now it's more than just an idea, we know what it looks like and the positive effect it's having so I'm looking at options."
As Michelle's big dream takes shape, the flow on effect for the children with special needs and their families, plus the larger community, is building. The Coloured Spaghetti outcomes are acceptance, understanding and fun and made possible through Michelle and the #powerofand.
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