Seventh grader Riley Zerjal twice played crazy birds as part of the Summer Youth Musicals put on by St. Paul United Church of Christ in Belleville.
She got a creative outlet playing Scuttle last summer in “The Little Mermaid Jr.” and Zazu in this summer’s production of “The Lion King Jr.” The church musicals replace arts programs disappearing from public schools, including Riley’s school, Pontiac Junior High in Fairview Heights.
Since 2014, any child who auditioned received a role and then six weeks of guidance and practice before the big performance. It is all free to the kids.
Kurt Taylor, the performing arts director for St. Paul United Church of Christ in Belleville, leads the program. He said the youngsters experience a type of personal expression in a way that they might not be able to anywhere else, especially with Illinois schools cutting back on the arts due to the lack of state funding for schools.
Riley’s dad, Doug, who teaches high school, said the church musical is a welcomed outlet for his daughter.
“I know that the art program at her school, especially her grade school, went to half time and then it went to totally gone after that. It’s disappointing. I think that’s one of the first things to get cut, and that’s definitely an avenue for a lot of kids to express themselves in something that they enjoy,” he said.
The video above follows Riley, Taylor and the young performers who created the musical, which was performed July 14.