Wide-eyed children sat on the edge of their seats as they observed illusionist Kevin Spencer make everything from toilet paper, rubber balls and pizza disappear into thin air.
Spencer performed magic and taught tricks to children in Texas A&M’s Project Sunshine program on Tuesday evening at Central Baptist Church. The performance is a part of a larger education outreach program with MSC OPAS from Monday to Wednesday throughout the Brazos Valley. The non-profit program “Hocus Focus” aims to help autistic, cognitively delayed, emotionally disturbed and other learning-disabled students with positive self-expression, motivation, and motor and presentation skills.
Spencer is an award-winning magician and has performed on stages in 49 U.S. states and 34 countries. After around 25 years of traveling the globe with his wife, he decided to focus on his nonprofit. Spencer said he enjoys being with people and watching people with disabilities experience success in ways they never thought possible.
“The art of illusion is universal,” Spencer said in an email to The Battalion. “I travel all over the world, and I’ve never met someone who wasn’t captivated by a magic trick. That is one of many things that makes it such a powerful tool for rehab therapy and education.”
This is Spencer’s third time working with A&M. Spencer is also a faculty member at Carlow University in Pittsburgh and a research consultant at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He conducts research on arts-integrated interventions in education and healthcare for the disabled.
“The benefits of the arts are often overlooked when it comes to promoting and protecting human health,” Spencer said. “My work in academia is to quantify that impact. I love working with the folks at OPAS because they understand the impact of the arts beyond what happens on the stage.”
OPAS education outreach coordinator Shanna Wright travels with Spencer for his performances in the Brazos Valley. Wright said Spencer has also worked with Alzheimer’s patients and A&M classes such as education and physical therapy.
“He’ll be in a session, it will be over and the kids will be taken out, and the supervisor will come over and say, ‘That kid hasn’t spoken in two years,’” Wright said. “There’s one magic trick the kids do and part of it is getting up in front of the group and putting a story to a simple magic trick. It’s really neat to see them do that in front of their peers. Very few of his sessions have I left without a little bit of tears in my eyes.”
According to OPAS executive director Anne Black, the OPAS education outreach program reaches over 16,000 students from 16 school districts. Wright said the program arranges bus and school performances for six grade levels throughout the year, but Spencer’s performances stand out.
“We do several different kinds of outreach, but this is the only one where you can call someone up and say, ‘Can we please bring this teaching artist into your school to do some magic with your kids,’” Wright said. “It gets us in the door a lot faster. I think it’s so important the arts are introduced to children at a young age.”
Project Sunshine family programs coordinators, special education junior Kaitlyn Calvin and allied health senior Callie Williams, helped set up the Tuesday performance. Project Sunshine is a student organization that puts on events in the community for children with disabilities and their siblings.
“We’ve never been able to do a magic show event for them, but this was really cool and I think it was one they were really interested in,” Williams said. “I’m sure some of them have never seen a magic show. They don’t always get to do stuff that other kids get to do, so it’s special.”
Calvin said she joined Project Sunshine because she wanted an opportunity to serve the community, and the organization has become her favorite part about A&M.
“I was curious how they would do, trying to sit for that long, but they did such a good job paying attention and being helpful with the tricks,” Calvin said. “Kevin didn’t alter his tricks for these kids. They were able to do it too, and I think they were able to see that.”