I am a writer. I string words together to communicate information, persuade, amuse. I express my creativity by thoughtfully using language to paint vibrant pictures and performances in your mind, making you feel, think, react. It is my art. When I write I am filled with light.
For people with special needs, their ability to communicate, to express their feelings, to ask for help, to explore what is possible are often stymied by physical or mental limitations. Without an expressive outlet, their inner light is burdened by darkness. They can’t easily find a way out, so they may never become their best selves.
Art can be the switch that fills the darkness with light, and Jay Klein (founder and CEO) and Rob Rothschild (president) of the ArtThread Foundation, are making artistic expression easy and accessible with an online art program centered on a “digital Etch-A-Sketch” tool called SPLASH! And it is doing wonders for people of all ages who had been limited by their own minds, bodies, or environments.
Try SPLASH! It’s free! Just set up an account and click “Create Art Online.”
“Our mission is to make art and creative expression more available to everyone, especially those impacted by social circumstance and physical limitations,” says Jay. Through the ArtThread Foundation, teachers are using SPLASH! in schools across the country to help children learn, express themselves, vent their frustrations, discover their creativity, and build self-esteem. “This is an adaptive technology that enhances success for students with disabilities,” says Jay.
The Power of Expression
Alonna had the opportunity to try SPLASH! when she was in her early 20s, shortly before aging out of the Florida school system. She lives with spina bifida, a spinal birth defect that affects her ability to walk and learn. She made it through high school in St. Petersburg and entered a transition program called Project 10 to prepare for living in the adult world. Project 10 is an ArtThread “pARTner” and uses the program to help students explore their artistic side.
“She really took to it in a special way,” says Rob Rothschild, president of ArtThread Foundation. Alonna was one of a small group of Project 10 students who were selected to participate in Work of Art (WOA), an ArtThread program that teaches participants how to turn their love of art into an online business.
Developed in conjunction with VSA Florida and funded with a grant from The Able Trust, WOA helps students set up e-commerce businesses through which they can sell products featuring their original art. Through a custom portal to the online marketplace Zazzle, the artists create and sell shirts, coffee mugs, and other items featuring their work.
Rob showed Alonna how to set up and manage her store and design products on the Zazzle platform. “Alonna was very shy,” says Rob. “Learning how to create art and sell it in her own online store really boosted her confidence. She really took to it in a special way.”
“I love to paint and draw and be creative,” she wrote after launching her online store. “When I do art I am free from all the challenges that I face on a daily basis.”
How It Began
The initiating concept for ArtThread was born from Jay’s National Institute of Health, National Cancer Institute, and U.S. Department of Commerce funded research at the University of Florida. “I was studying the effects of artistic expression on symptom management in children undergoing cancer treatment,” says Jay. “I found that they had a better quality of life because they found meaning in the art. People who are more resilient have been able to attach positive meaning to their journey. That positivity displaces the negativity of their circumstance.”
“Then it dawned on me that it could help people with disabilities as well,” he says. “That’s when we came up with the idea to create the ArtThread Foundation as a way to develop the tools and partner with organizations that would benefit from it.”
“Any place there is no darkness there is light.”
Jay used the power of creative expression as a survivorship tool himself when he battled and beat cancer as a young man, and he is passionate about using technology and creative expression to foster self-esteem and community among children with disabilities, health challenges, and difficult social circumstances. The foundation partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to develop SPLASH! and the platform for the online art galleries.
ArtThread has taken root in Florida with organizations serving people with special needs such as VSA and Project 10, and in Sonoma County, CA, with the Early Learning Institute. It is also used at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Tampa, FL, where young patients can create art with SPLASH!, providing a way to express themselves and bring light into their lives.
At VSA, Bonnie Hammer is a teaching artist implementing the program in schools in and around Sarasota, FL. Special education teachers apply for grants through VSA to implement an 8-week program. At the start of each program, she works with the teacher to use the online art tools to enhance the curriculum, whether it’s learning colors and shapes, combining shapes to build things, or learning math and science.
“It’s like a giant coloring book,” says Bonnie. “Once the students see me using it, they get very excited and want to try it.” The program also helps students develop fine motor skills and can help students focus, relax, and express their feelings. “I’ve even used the program with young offenders in a juvenile prison,” she says. “They have a lot of anger and other issues, and through the creative process they’re able to work through them.”
Karen Holtman tested ArtThread with kindergarten students at John B. Riebli Elementary School in Santa Rosa, CA. “Jay asked me to collect data to document how effective the program was with 5-year-olds. It had only been used with older children and adults, so he was skeptical it would be successful.”
“It was extremely popular with the kids,” says Karen. ArtThread provided the hardware for three SPLASH! stations in her classroom! She used it to teach the children colors, shapes and patterns. She paired them up and had them copy what one another created, teaching them how to work together. “It really helped lay the foundation for using technology in a fun way.”
Turn on the Light
Jay and Rob would love to see ArtThread in every school, particularly those that have eliminated the arts because of budget constraints, so students can use art to discover their abilities and unlock their full potential.
“When you remove art, you remove not only an individual’s ability to express himself, but you also remove a society’s ability to express itself,” says Jay. “Creativity is a key part of our wellness.”
If you would like to begin a program in your school or organization, contact ArtThread to become a “pARTner.”
You will be amazed at how quickly the light chases away the darkness.
About me: I am Pete Resler, a dad of two boys with special needs. I created this blog to tell stories of exceptional people, including those with special needs and those who give of themselves to make life better for them. My hope is that these stories expose more people to what’s good in the special needs world and inspire them to give of themselves to make life better for those with special needs.
You can help: I’m always looking for new ideas. If you know someone you think should be featured, shoot me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.