By Bria Overs
LONG BEACH — Located on Pacific Coast Highway, one of the busiest highways in the Los Angeles County sits an inconspicuous three-story building. Looking at the front of the building, the perception is it’s a typical office space for some paper-pushing company. But, step inside the first floor and the camouflage of the building disappears to reveal what Able ARTS Work is all about.
Every morning, clients, one by one, are dropped off by buses and vans coming from their homes. To start the day on a good foot, they’re greeted by the big, bright smiles of the staff and a welcoming “good morning.”
Within one room, there are people with a variety of different disabilities with varying levels of ability. Some may have an autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, intellectual or developmental disabilities, neurodegenerative disorders or other socio-emotional disorders. No matter their circumstance, they’re all ready for a day of activities.
“If you talk to our students here, they don’t view [being disabled] like a bad thing or a hindrance,” Art Instructor Ellen Bae said. “They think about it as something that’s just a part of them and they’re not ashamed to say it. They’re very aware they have a disability and they’re proud to be themselves, and I think that’s really important.”
Able ARTS Work started in 1982 in a Long Beach parks and recreation building with one music therapist, Helen Dolas, the founder, and was later joined by an art therapist and five students.
Dolas founded the program while completing her master’s degree in special education. From its humble beginnings, the organization’s services have grown and are now offered at four different locations in the Long Beach and South Bay areas.
To add to its uniqueness, each location provides different opportunities for their clients, but has overall become a safe space for the disabled with their philosophy of “love before learning.”
The Long Beach location, also known as the Achieving Results Together (ART) Center, operates on a six-month semester schedule and works a community center with each student signing up for a class or two, and then attending that class for a few weeks.
The icing on the cake is Able ARTS Works has its clients suggest classes. What they suggest, the teachers sometimes make.
“A lot of times we create them because we do something in a class and find that there’s a huge interest in it,” Katie Fohrman, program and community inclusion director, said.
“For example, we decided to do a marionette and [chose] to do a dog. So, I did the dog marionette with them and they named him Snoop, like Snoop Dogg,” Fohrman said with a laugh. “And it was so popular and they loved it so much and I found that it was so beneficial that I created an entire semester class on marionette and shadow puppet making.”
But their classes aren’t only about having fun and creating something to show people. Able ARTS Work is a program that has board-certified music and art therapists, like Fohrman, who is an associate professional clinical counselor for the program as well.
When clients are at Able ARTS Work they work on building skills and courage to do things out of their comfort zones.
Staff members like Bae and Fohrman love what they do. They’re passionate about the company’s mission and love helping their clients broaden their horizons every day.
It’s not just about art and music for them, it’s about how their clients can benefit from working with them in the long-run.
“I think they definitely gain a fellowship; they gain a partnership; and they also gain the confidence to chase their dreams and pursue what they really want to do,” Fohrman said. “A lot of our clients want to be professional artists and we provide that avenue for them. We provide that avenue for them to believe in themselves and follow their dreams.”
Organization: Able ARTS Work
Founder: Helen Dolas
Social Media: www.facebook.com/ableartswork
This article originally appeared in the Wave Newspapers.