A group of children at River Hill Village Center surrounded actress Helen O'Grady one recent afternoon and yelled as loud as they could.
The ruckus was music to O'Grady's ears. As the founder and executive director of DramaKids International, O'Grady has developed an organization that uses the arts to teach children confidence and verbal skills
The after-school program made its United States debut in Howard County, enrolling dozens of youngsters who come for one, fun-filled hour a week.
"It's great to see the children's sparkling faces," said O'Grady, who is well known in Australia and New Zealand for her work in family programming and theater. "We expected them to love it."
Since its inception more than 20 years ago, thousands of children in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, South Africa and the United Kingdom have participated in the program.
And while the children learn simple skits and sometimes put on small shows for their parents, O'Grady said the program is more about boosting the children's self-esteem than teaching acting techniques.
"There's a growing need for our program because many of the children today are so wrapped up in the media and the video games that they don't have some of the communication skills they need," O'Grady said. "We want to help them communicate well, to socialize well and to be able to make friends."
The program costs $120 for a 10-week session, with four 10-week sessions held in a year.
The reason for Howard
Douglas Howard, president of DramaKids International, said Howard County's focus on education made it an ideal location.
"There is also a very strong emphasis on the arts," said Howard, a former vice president of finance for Sylvan Learning Center. "With Columbia being so progressive, the parents are very supportive of the arts for children, and they have a great interest in their children's education."
Parents stood on the sidelines smiling as O'Grady and the program's principal, Kristene Lutjen, engaged the children in an exercise designed to use their imaginations while teaching them how to follow directions and be part of an ensemble.
"Imagine that you are a fruit and freeze," O'Grady said.
Her voice rang out with an Australian lilt in the room as she waved her arms.
"Now really yell for me to buy you," she said.
"Buy me, please buy me, Helen!" the children screamed and pleaded.
Liking that tambourine
Emma Mottram, 7, took particular pleasure in going to a class where the only rule is that when the tambourine is struck, everyone must be quiet.
"It's silly, and we get to do a lot of things," she said. "You get to do some drama, and I always loved acting."
Elaine Smart enrolled her son, Tommy, 7, in the program as an alternative to sports.
Tommy enjoys being creative, Smart said.
"I think this type of program is something that they will carry through the rest of their lives," she said. "If you can teach them to have self-confidence and be able to talk to people, they will use that later in life."
Program officials said they expect to expand throughout the state with have hopes of opening more franchises around the country.
In Howard County, classes are being held for ages 9 through 12 in Ellicott City, River Hill, Long Reach, Harper's Choice and Kings Contrivance, and for next year, there are plans to add a middle school and high school program.
O'Grady said the key to the program is to bring enthusiasm and fun to the pupils.
But in the midst of all zaniness, the actress said, the children are learning a valuable lesson.
"We try to make the children believe that they are empowered," she said. "If you can communicate, you can effect change."