Megan Burgess loves to paint and sing.
She looks forward to her weekly art and music class, designed for people with special needs, which are Thursday evenings at the Land O’ Lakes Recreation Complex on Collier Parkway. But if it doesn’t get more support, she might lose that opportunity.
And that loss would be felt by both Megan and her mother.
“It would be horrible. You want the kids to be socializing,” Violetta Burgess said.
Her daughter Megan, 21, has low-functioning autism. She has trouble communicating verbally, but her enthusiasm for the class is clear: When Violetta tells her it’s time for art or music, Megan goes to find her shoes. She knows where she’s going that night, and has a fun time singing, using percussion instruments, painting and participating with everyone else in the class.
The problem is that “everyone” was just five students this past session. And for VSA Florida, the state branch of Very Special Arts — an international nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding art opportunities for people with disabilities — five is simply not enough.
“It does put the program in jeopardy, because if we don’t keep our numbers up, we’re not able to keep it going,” said Wendy Finklea, VSA Florida’s director of programs. “We aren’t at the point where the class is sustaining itself.”
The class requires at least seven students to break even, but really needs a steady roster of 10 or more students to be financially viable long-term. The $40 per month that participants pay not only compensates the teachers who direct the classes, but also covers a nominal fee the organization pays the recreation complex.
Since classes moved from the University of South Florida to Land O’ Lakes in January, attendance has ranged from four to eight students. Those figures have required VSA Florida to keep it going with other funds, Finklea said. They also provide scholarships based on need for families who cannot afford the monthly cost.
While the class is caught in a numbers game, Finklea said the benefits go way beyond the balance sheet.
“They learn self confidence, they learn teamwork, collaboration, tolerance, understanding,” she said.
And since the students are often asked to describe or explain their art, they learn to express themselves in a variety of ways.
While the Land O’ Lakes class attendance is troubling, that location isn’t alone. Many of their locations struggle with attendance, Finklea said. She believes there are several reasons why the programs don’t always gain traction, from a lack of societal emphasis on the arts, to scheduling conflicts, to parents not even knowing the classes exist.
But the ones who attend appreciate the program, and Finklea said the training the teachers receive to work with special needs students contributes to the positive feedback.
While Finklea and VSA Florida are disappointed with the turnout so far, they aren’t giving up. VSA Florida will continue advertising and promoting the classes, and is working with a consultant to find other opportunities to get the word out to the community.
After a scheduled summer break in August, the classes will begin again in September, and Finklea said they’ll have roughly six months to get the program running at a higher capacity before some tough decisions have to be made.
Right now she believes many people with special needs are missing out on the benefits of the class, and if it has to be cancelled or relocated, the existing students will join them.
“They’re probably missing out on a huge chance for creative expression and probably a chance to enhance their cognitive and social outcomes, which ultimately develops a stronger quality of life,” Finklea said.
That outcome would disappoint Megan, and her mother would have a tough time replacing the activity and the enjoyment she gets out of it.
“My daughter would lose out because I don’t know what I would do,” Violetta said. “She’s older, and it’s hard to find something for her that’s close.”
Siblings of special needs students also are encouraged to join and participate with them in the classes. Children under 7 must be accompanied by an adult.
For more information about VSA Florida, call (813) 974-0715, or visit VSAFl.org.
Published July 30, 2014
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