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When Anything is Everything

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On a sunny July morning, a group of seniors with physical disabilities draw on a sidewalk outside the old St. Mary’s school in Bay View. Wielding bright, egg-shaped chalks, they let their imagination loose. One man draws bugs. Another, leaning forward in his wheelchair, sketches an elaborate house. A woman ignores the sidewalk, opting to decorate her chalk like an Easter egg. They’re bused here from the Village Adult Services, to participate in a Very Special Arts of Southeastern Wisconsin (VSA) activity. The non-profit runs arts programs for adults and children with developmental and physical disabilities. Across the way from the grand old buildings and campus is a tree-lined park. Beyond that is a glimpse of the blue waters of Lake Michigan. Heide Planey, the southeastern district director, and Anne Kebisek, field services director for the state, both hold degrees in Art Therapy. They move about the group, setting up equipment and greeting the seniors. Nearby, housed (appropriately) in the stately Marian Building for Non-Profits, is one of VSA’s five Wisconsin offices which specializes not only in the visual arts, but also in diverse activities such as choir, dance, drama, art festivals and art sales. Originally part of the Milwaukee Public School system, VSA took root in the late ’70s and thrived primarily through the efforts of volunteers. In 1985, it established itself as an independent non-profit and currently receives 70% of its funding through business donations, foundations, and corporations, including the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Additional monies from the Department of Education and Department of Workforce Development help support their statewide budget of $886,000. Approximately 65 artists are paid to teach the classes. Everyone likes to have the freedom to make their own choices, but persons with disabilities and those who are institutionalized often face regimented routines. At VSA they exercise choice, whether this means taking a class or spending their money on an item that catches their fancy. “A sense of pride makes them feel special,” Kebisek says, “but if they don’t want to draw in a drawing class, they may choose to happily listen to music instead.” Another facet of VSA’s mission is to spread awareness about disabilities, thus challenging stereotypes. As for the participants, today’s group seems to enjoy being both social and creative. It’s nice to know that a client who was once very quiet before classes now greets and shakes the hands of everyone in his group. Alzator Fourston, a lively African-American woman, remarks, “I like the idea that you can do anything and anything is everything, and everything is all right.” Client Maxine Suber admits she knows little about art but likes to create it simply because it’s different from what she usually does. As the class progresses, the seniors are asked about their drawings and everyone is encouraged to try their hand. Afternoon approaches and finishing touches are chalked onto the sidewalk before the seniors gather in the shade to wait for their bus. Left behind as they pull away, is a walkway teeming with fantastic flights of imagination: flowers, houses, bugs, berries, and doodles galore. Very special indeed.
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