Blue Devils Special Needs Guard–Paving the Way to Inclusive Performing Arts

By: Arushi Pandit, FCSN Voices Youth Reporter

Look out ’cause here I come 
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me

On April 2, 2022, the Blue Devils’ Special Needs Guard performed at the Circuit Championship held at Independence High School. They were the last performance of the day — a position typically reserved for the most honored performing position. Dancing to This Is Me from The Greatest Showman, a song that fittingly describes the challenging journey of all special needs performers, all the members gave it their all and proudly showed off the moves that they have practiced for so long. The audience cheered loudly and clapped enthusiastically to the moving performance, culminating in a standing ovation at the end. Annette Odello, the team’s passionate and driven coach, made all this possible through her vision and determination. 

Anette and her small team at the beginning of her journey

The Blue Devils Color Guard is a well-established program that was founded in 1957 in Concord, California by the Odello family. Twelve years ago, after seeing a special needs color guard team from Florida compete at a national competition, Annette was inspired to start her own special needs color guard within the Blue Devils program. As Anette tried reaching out to various special needs organizations, she hit a roadblock as they were not receptive to her ideas.  She realized she did not have the right connections in this field, so she reached out to her cousin who had built one of the first parks “which was available for any kind of kid with any disability.” Annette’s dream finally came to reality when FCSN Vice President of Local Programs and Community Relations Anna Wang reached out to Annette and wanted her to start a special needs color guard group in Fremont.

Anette and her growing special needs guard 

The class was assembled, but the path was not easy. Annette goes out of her way to hold in-person practice sessions in Concord and Fremont, giving her the ability to establish one-on-one connections with her students. But the art of color guard does not come easy for special needs students as many of them face a variety of challenges including strength and coordination issues, difficulty sustaining attention, and following instructions. One student with autism spent the first couple of months looking at her hands, immersed in her own world, ignoring the instructors and what the class was doing. Annette leveraged her extensive experience as a coach working with students from different countries with language barriers to help her overcome challenges she faces while teaching special needs children. One of the things she emphasizes while teaching special needs children is to enforce simple rules for the students to follow. It is important for Annette to teach the students life lessons because we all have to follow rules in our daily lives. Her passion for finding opportunities to let these kids learn, and providing a platform to let them shine is truly admirable. She takes every day as an opportunity to help the special needs students have a memorable experience. Through her experience of working with special needs students, Anette graciously said, “I have learned more from this experience than the kids.”  Her proudest and most memorable moments are when her team performs on stage every year during April and June. 

Annette’s color guard team at the color guard circuit in San Jose

Today the Blue Devils Special Needs Guard has 30 members and is continuing to grow. In the future, Annette envisions the idea of including special needs students in color guard teams as a “growing trend” across the country. Annette has had “dialogue” with many color guard teams from different countries who are interested in including special needs children in their teams. Recently Annette spoke to a gentleman in Texas who wanted to start a special needs color guard team, and this gives Annette hope that more people want to include special needs individuals in their teams. Annette paves the way and inspires the inclusion of special needs children in color guard teams globally.

The team is accepting new members to be part of the Blue Devils family in October. If you are interested in joining the Blue Devils Special Needs Guard, please contact Annette at aodello@bluedevils.org

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