Arts Express Camp

All camp songs are by Elizabeth Mitchell and camp leaders. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Villain Busters were the first to storm the stage. They entered with pool noodles by their sides as their weapons, their footsteps marked by a heavy baseline in the background music.

Other characters appeared on stage as the story unfolded. From Friendly Forest Creatures to Giggly Gingerbread Folks, the audience at Maureen Forrester Recital Hall in Wilfrid Laurier University last Friday were treated to a performance of Once Upon a Time, put on by the Arts Express — a week-long camp for children with special needs.

Arts Express camp

Campers warmed up backstage with the finale song, Once Upon a Time. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Kids spent four days immersed in arts, music, dance and drama at the Waterloo KidsAbility facility, a co-sponsor of the camp. They were led by a group of university students enrolled in a course called Inclusive Arts for Children, offered by the faculty of music at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Volunteers also got their fair share of performance time. They spent the week with the campers and assisted them alongside camp leaders. One volunteer is Dillon Coates.

Dillon Coates Arts Express camp

Dillon Coates started volunteering at the camp when he became too old to attend as a camper. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Coates started out as a camper. He went to Arts Express every year starting in 2006 until he passed the cut-off age of 14.

"The reason I became a volunteer was because I really loved doing the camp when I was here as a camper," Coates said. "I wanted to continue that and give back to the camp that's given me so much."

Arts Express was where he stood on stage for the first time. It's the same case for other participants.

Arts Express camp

Performers danced and sang on stage in full costume. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Camp coordinator Elizabeth Mitchell said this performance is a great opportunity for kids to experience what it's like to be on a professional stage.

"For that hour when they're on stage, the children are truly treated, as they should be — as entertainers and artists of the highest ability, and the audience supports them," she said.

Arts Express camp

Campers, volunteers and leaders remained on stage to watch a slideshow with photos from the week after the performance. (Flora Pan/CBC)

For Coates, his first stage experience opened the door to many future performances, one being a lead singer of a rock band in high school.

Arts Express camp

A camper chats with a volunteer. (Flora Pan/CBC)

Coates finds joy in connecting with kids who are exploring arts and performance.

Arts Express camp

All campers leave with certificates that lists the role they played in the performance. (Flora Pan/CBC)

"It's really great to help the kids and see them be happy," he said. "I remember a couple years ago, I was helping one kid and he said to me, 'This is the best day of my life,' and hearing that was great."