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Art unlocks doors for disabled at CSMA

Classes at Community School of Music and Arts, a Voice Holiday Fund recipient, add bright spot in treatment routine

When Mike was a child, poor treatment at an institution left him with a fear of being outside and a hesitation around doors. Now, nearly half a century later, weekly art classes at the Community School of Music and Arts help him overcome these obstacles, said the school's visual arts director, Linda Covello.

"When he first came here, he hesitated and worried over coming in," she said. "But it didn't take him long before he was familiar with us. You can see that it broadens his world."

Mike attends classes with other disabled adults through CSMA's five-year-old partnership with Abilities United, a Palo Alto nonprofit for children and adults with developmental disabilities.

CSMA's partnership with Abilities United is one way that the school fulfills its mission of "arts for all," said Evy Schiffman, director of marketing and communication at the Mountain View nonprofit.

Schiffman added that a major component of reaching that goal is CSMA's "Arts in the Schools" program, which provides music and arts education to 7,500 students in 27 schools throughout Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. Every student in the Mountain View Whisman School District, for example, gets his or her arts education through this program.

This year, CSMA is one of seven local charitable organizations receiving donations from the Voice's annual Holiday Fund drive. Contributions from readers and local foundations will directly support CSMA's "Arts in the Schools" program.

CSMA also encourages the arts education of autistic youth through a program called "Artistic Intelligence." Now in its second year, the program serves 48 students who converge on CSMA from Morgan Autism Center, Pacific Autism Center for Education, and AchieveKids.

Covello notes that most of the students spend their education in intimate, one-on-one settings isolated from the rest of the community. They love coming to CSMA because it gets them into a group setting, she said.

Covello recalls one student's reaction to his weekly classes: "We go from being in a really small space to being in these really big spaces where we can paint and work with clay and interact," said Jordan, a 19-year-old enrolled in the Morgan Autism Center.

Like Mike, the special needs students come away from arts and music classes with more than artistic skills.

The students, separated into higher and lower functioning groups, work with aides to learn art and music skills. For Covello, teaching these students is a unique experience because of the pride they feel in even the simplest expressions of creativity.

"They have a kind of innocence and excitement about making art," she said.

Mary Holmes, music director at CSMA, at first was concerned about the effectiveness of the program because the teachers are not trained as music therapists. But the classes have exceeded her expectations, she said: Students who were previously disengaged now are participating and talking.

"It's about learning social skills and encountering a peer from another agency that you don't see every day," said executive director Jeffry Walker. Walker's office features artwork by a student from Abilities United a painting resembling an abstract interpretation of sheet music.

Like Walker, Holmes also has a keepsake of her work with the students: a note from Wanda, an autistic adult. It begins, "I send you a very happy late Halloween and early Thanksgiving hug! I'm really enjoying giving you this card because I like you a lot as my staff and friends! You are great ones and I care about you a lot!"

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