Center uses arts to serve clients with disabilities

Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — A local percussion ensemble performed at three separate events in the New York City area the weekend of Aug. 1-3, traveling by chartered bus from Winston-Salem.

The performances were among roughly two-dozen each year by the troupe, which in June also released “Ten Songs,” its second compact disc.

Believed to be the first professional music group in the U.S. whose members live with developmental disabilities, the Enrichment Center Percussion Ensemble features
six musicians, all but one of whom learned to play their instruments at the center.

“Our mission is to help people with developmental disabilities become active and productive citizens in the community,” says Sue Kneppelt, director of the Gateway Gallery and arts marketing at the Enrichment Center.

Formed in 1983, the center merged in 2002 with The Arc of Forsyth County and the now-defunct Forsyth Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

With an annual budget of nearly $2.1 million and a staff of roughly 50 people, the center is a member of the state and national Arc organizations and each year provides Arc services in the community to between 500 to 1,000 individuals, as well as workshops for their families.

In addition, roughly 65 people visit the group’s offices each day for academic and life-skills programs, and the center also supports roughly 100 people a year with its supported-employment program.

That program works to help people with disabilities get jobs, and then provides them with job-site training and long-term support.

And the arts play a key role in the services the center provides, Kneppelt says.

The arts are “a way for people with developmental disabilities to communicate,” she says. “Their communication skills are often severely lacking, but they can learn to
communicate through their art work.”

Most of the 65 people who visit the Enrichment Center each day take at least some arts classes, which are offered every hour.

Topics include ceramics, painting, music, multi-media, dance/theater, poetry, photography, jewelry-making and, starting in June, making art with glass.

Not only do participants learn arts skills, but they also generate income for themselves and for the Enrichment Center through the sale of the art they create.

“The focus of the arts program is employment,” Kneppelt says. “So they get commissions from the artwork they sell and fees from performances and recordings.”

Annual revenue from art sales and fees from performances and recordings, which are divided evenly between the artists and the center, totaled $23,400 for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2007.

Artwork is sold in the center’s Gateway Gallery, which features both sales and exhibition space and changes exhibitions every other month, pairing work by the center’s artists and by community artists who do not have disabilities.

A new program will bring to the center two to three times a year artists-in-residence who will work and teach in a medium for which the center lacks equipment and expertise.

This summer, for example, Winston-Salem artist Aaron Robbins taught silk-screening, and the center on July 25 opened an exhibition, entitled “Time Tables,” that will run through Sept. 20 and feature Robbins’ work and that of the center’s own artists.

Founded in 1997 by Aaron Bachelder, a musician and composer who serves as its director, the percussion ensemble performs at receptions for all the center’s art-exhibition openings and at events sponsored by groups such as United Way of Forsyth County, which provides 15 percent to 20 percent of the center’s annual budget, and the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County.

Bachelder, who performs in the group and is its only member who does not have a developmental disability, was invited to speak this month at a national conference in White Plains, N.Y., for executive directors of Arc organizations.

Bachelder, whose topic was the use of music as a vocational opportunity for people with disabilities, also arranged for the percussion ensemble to perform at the
conference, and at the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan and the Douglass Street Music Collective in Brooklyn.

Members of the ensemble will use ideas from the New York trip to help plan the center’s second annual Mardi Gras fundraising event next year.

The inaugural event last January attracted 350 guests and netted $21,000 for the center’s endowment, which totaled $154,600 on June 30.

“For too long, individuals with disabilities have been told what they can and cannot do by others,” Kneppelt says. “Through our program at the environment center, people with disabilities are learning they can make their own choices, and we give them the tools to help them make good choices.”

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