By Kyle LoJacono
A room brightens with the sound of music mixed with beaming smiles of several children as they try various instruments set to the tune played by their instructor.
For the participants the hour flies by like it is only a minute as they learn about the art form. Suddenly one of the students, Alex Lynch, turns to a classmate and says ‘hi.’
That one word seems insignificant, but to his mother, Jennifer, those small responses show her how remarkable the VSA Florida class is for her autistic son.
Alex is mostly nonverbal, but he speaks simple words regularly while at the program put on each Tuesday at the psychiatry building at the University of South Florida (USF).
“He loves music,” Jennifer said. “Because he’s nonverbal it gives him another avenue for expression. … He looks so forward to it. He loves it and responds so well to music. I think the arts have had a big impact on his ability to verbalize.”
The two make the 30-minute drive from their home in Land O’ Lakes to reap the benefits. Jennifer has seen improved focus in her 13-year-old son thanks to the class. He also has taken more interest in music and even joined the band at his school, Weightman Middle in Wesley Chapel, as a drummer.
The story is similar with Arwa Alamoudi and her 13-year-old brother Anas, who has autism and ADHD.
“He really likes the movement and the sounds of the music,” said Arwa, who is attending USF to become a teacher for special needs kids. “It helps him relieve his stress.”
Arwa said Anas, who attends Liberty Middle in New Tampa, has also been more verbal since attending the class the last two months.
Jennifer and Arwa are just some of the caregivers who have benefited from the VSA since its founding in Florida in 1985. The program also offers courses in dance, playwriting, creative storytelling, painting, pottery and almost every other art form. It focuses on teaching people with disabilities, but no one is turned away.
“All we really want is for people to sit at the same table with everyone else and to be treated the same,” said Marian Winters, VSA of Florida executive director. “People with disabilities don’t have those same opportunities. We need to level the playing field and let them learn about art. If they’re good at it they are and if they aren’t they aren’t, like anyone else, but they need to be able to sit at the same table and have that experience. They don’t have to be the best; they just have to be included.”
The VSA was founded in the 1980s with the name Very Special Arts at the same time Special Olympics was created.
“Our philosophy is different,” Winters said. “Special Olympics looks at the winning and getting that medal of accomplishment. VSA we’re not as interested in winning, but of course we like it when our artists win things. We’re interested in the process of making them see that the arts have value to their lives. So it’s not about a battle for winning. It’s about recognizing what’s within.
“We provide arts education and cultural opportunities for and by people with disabilities,” Winters continued. “It’s for and by because we show the art of our students to try and get their careers started.”
The program directly serves 15,000 people with disabilities annually. Add in the students who are taught by teachers who attend VSA trainings and that number jumps up to 250,000; all done by a staff of seven working throughout the state.
“We’re able to help that many people because of our partnerships with all the school districts in the state,” said Winters, who has worked with the VSA since 1999. “We’re funded by the state department of education. We also work with cultural organizations and other groups to get the education out there.”
Winters said teachers always see their students differently after using the methods taught by the VSA.
“A lot of times students with disabilities are stereotyped as bad students, and it’s amazing how wrong that is,” Winters said. “It just takes a different way of reaching them because we all learn differently.”
The VSA is also branching out to find different ways to deliver its education, such as the community program offered at USF. The weekly class, which is $10 per session, was the creation of Lutz resident Wendy Finklea, who became the organization’s education coordinator about two years ago.
Finklea worked as a clinical microbiologist before coming to the VSA. She said she was surprised at how effective the methods are at helping those with disabilities learn.
“When I heard about it there was something that made me say ‘this is what I want to do,’” Finklea said. “I’d done a lot of medical work and volunteering with the arts and this did both.”
People such as adjunct University of Tampa music instructor Linda Rodriguez teach the programs. Finklea said they also invite disabled artists whenever they can.
Winters said the classes don’t just benefit the students. They also give caregivers the feeling that they are not alone.
“It’s nice to meet other people who have a family member with autism,” Arwa said. “It made me feel connected to someone.”
Winters said one of her main goals is getting the word out about the VSA programs so more people take advantage of them.
“What I would like is a huge waiting list for people who want to participate in any of our groups,” Winters said. “I want to see people with disabilities at performances and on the stage giving performances. I want to see them there and the demand for the programs. … I know what we do has made significant changes in people’s lives.”
To learn more about the VSA, visit www.vsafl.org or call Finklea at (813) 974-0715 or Winters at (813) 974-0721.