The scene inside the vacant South Philadelphia Forman Mills on Sunday afternoon was not your average Mummers practice: Teens with feather-tipped parasols chased one another around the echoing room, dishing out tickles and eliciting giggles and shrieks in return. Hugs were vigorous and frequent. Order was attained only grudgingly, as Lisa Stagliano clapped her hands and told the kids, "This is what being a Mummer is all about — practicing until we get a good performance."
But the truth is, whatever happens on Monday will feel like a win for Santino's Dragons, a new concept for Philadelphia's 117-year-old New Year's Day parade. It's a New Year's association composed of kids and teens with autism, Down syndrome, and other developmental disorders, led by Santino Stagliano, who is 13 years old, autistic and more or less unstoppable.
"It's amazing to watch these kids overcome all their obstacles: They can't be around loud noises. They can't stand big crowds. They usually like to be alone," said Rhoda Burke of South Philadelphia, whose 17-year-old son, Kevin Domard, is autistic. Yet, somehow, among the sequins and strutting of the Mummers, they seem to blossom. "It's a statement to the world: Accept our kids for who they are. Welcome them into your world; there's no limitation on what they can do."
This unlikely New Year's association was born of a field trip organized by Santino's Dragons, a nonprofit social club for kids with developmental challenges. The Staglianos — Santino and his parents, Lisa and Mario — started the organization about three years ago, in part using revenue from T-shirts and hats featuring dragons Santino loved to draw as a way of coping with the frustrations of life with autism. For many of the kids involved, the club's arts-and-crafts classes, annual proms and Christmas parties and monthly outings have been transformative.
"When Christopher used to go to the playground, the other kids would all leave. Now, you should see him at prom," said Denise Sferra, before pulling up photos on her phone of her nephew, Christopher Sferra, 18, in a dapper tuxedo with a blue bow tie. In the pictures, Christopher is slow-dancing with a date in a pretty blue gown, perhaps a little too close together for Denise Sferra's taste.
Last year, Santino's Dragons took a field trip to see the Fancy Brigades perform at the Convention Center, and were invited to go onstage with them. Christopher's dancing, in particular, brought the house down.
"I literally had to drag him offstage," Lisa Stagliano said. "As I brought him back off the stands to his mother, she had tears in her eyes. She said, 'Oh, I wish he could be a Mummer!' Later, Santino and I were talking, and we said, 'Why couldn't he?' That's what inspired us.'"
It turned out to be easier than they imagined. The Murray Comic Club invited the kids to march under its umbrella. A neighbor of Stagliano's volunteered to make an elaborate, purple dragon-head float. Other Mummers groups donated space for the kids to rehearse, and raised money to help cover the cost of a special bus for the kids by performing around South Philadelphia.
Miriam Marin, whose daughter, Jasmin, is 14 and has Down syndrome, made all 23 costumes — 19 for kids, and four for adults to help keep the kids on their marks — according to Santino's specifications and preferred red-and-orange color scheme.
Marin, a seamstress, was happy to do it, given how much Santino's Dragons has done for Jasmin.
"In South Philadelphia, we didn't have nothing for special-needs children," she said. "Before, she didn't like a lot of people and loud noises. But since she's been with Santino, she's been doing good. The fears she had before don't bother her anymore. She has friendships."
Not everyone loved the idea right away.
Lynn Ruffenach lived most of her life on Second Street, and has photographs of her father and grandfather as wenches going back to the 1930s.
"Back then, it would have been unspeakable for a woman to go out in the parade," said Ruffenach, whose daughter June, 15, has Down syndrome. "I'm from a long family of just males in the parade, so I thought, 'No, we're not going to do it.' But then my daughter wanted to, so it changed my perspective."
So, at the final rehearsal Sunday, June brandished her parasol, Santino climbed up onto the float, and Christopher Sferra, who has autism, Down syndrome and an unwavering love of WWE wrestling, practiced his starring role, leading the performance in a gymnastic dragonesque fight scene before the rest of the group joins in an exuberant strut. That battle scene was going to be Santino's job, but at the last minute the Staglianos decided that Sferra was the one who deserved it.
Mario Stagliano, standing off to one side, watched with tears in his eyes.
"This is just amazing stuff," he said. "They feel so accepted."
Lisa Stagliano said because it was the group's first year, parade rules limited them to a few dozen performers.
"We had hundreds of kids with disabilities who reached out and wanted to be a part of it," she said. "We're hoping next year, we can open it up to anybody who ever wanted to be a Mummer, but didn't think they could."