Two weeks ago, a visually impaired child ran his hands over replicas of famous international statues, a physically impaired child finger-painted and made a collage from his wheelchair, a young boy pressed clay into the shape of a bird with his palm and the one finger he has on each hand, and more than 2,300 specially abled children had similar meaningful experiences leading to thousands of smiles during a four-day period.
Having just completed its 23rd year at The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, the VSA Festival (formerly known as 'Very Special Arts') is an integral experience during the year for thousands of children, teachers and caretakers.
Founded in 1974 by Jean Kennedy Smith, sister of President John F. Kennedy, VSA currently serves seven million people in 52 countries and hundreds of cities around the world, providing arts and educational programming for youth and adults with a range of abilities.
"At VSA, our goal is to bring forth the lasting values of community, caring, understanding, tolerance and appreciation," said Smith during a video on the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts website. "Every day, we demonstrate that 'disabled' does not mean 'unable,' that artists with disabilities and their work profoundly enrich all of our lives."
In 2011, Smith was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama for her lifetime commitment and legacy of work with VSA.
Locally, The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens is home to the Jacksonville VSA affiliate, inviting area students on any spectrum of ability (visual, hearing, autistic, learning or physically limited) to visit the museum for a multiple arts experience and tour the galleries and gardens, making eight scheduled stops over a two-hour time frame, allowing the children to paint, sculpt, create music, sing, dance and build collages.
"When the Education Department develops projects for the festival, we always consider the abilities of student participants, ensuring they can be successful," said Cummer Museum Educator and Accessibility Coordinator Matthew Patterson. "As the festival has grown, we have also made sure to balance the activities by introducing more music and movement experiences and emphasize the idea of 'process over product' with all of our volunteers. We want them to know that beyond the painting and drawing and gardens and music, the most important parts of VSA are the interactions that they have with the students. Their enthusiasm and encouragement is what makes the day meaningful."
More than 1,450 volunteers in addition to most of Cummer staff brought this year's four-day festival alive, creating a 1:1 ratio between students and volunteers. Drums greeted students, teachers and caregivers as they arrived and met their tour guides, whose colorful headbands signified which group went with which guide through the museum. All volunteers wore shirts with artwork created by students from one of the schools.
Jacksonville Dance Theater provided movement education in the garden. Musician Arvid Smith presented Wood and Wire, exposing the kids to several stringed instruments (including a Japanese Shamisen made with a snakeskin). Ajamu Mutima played the Cora, an African stringed instrument, as well as a thumb piano also known as a Kalimba, African drum and flute, and sang a song with the words, "It makes me so happy when I see you smile." Museum educators and volunteers led collage, weaving, painting and sculpture workshops.
"VSA represents the best of this kind of inclusive programming and also gives us a glimpse at the broader outreach of the Cummer's amazing education department," said VSA volunteer Pam Ingram. "Since we moved back to this area 12 years ago, we have been increasingly impressed by the community outreach of the Cummer."
For many students involved in VSA, the excursion is the only field trip for the year, and their only opportunity to make art. The majority of their time is spent at home or in isolated classes within their schools. Their participation in VSA is a chance to experience a range of arts and interact with strangers smiling and excited to see them, unlike many of their experiences with strangers in public.
For volunteers, some use vacation days year after year to participate, some take their children out of school so they can volunteer, too, and all are moved by the many stories extolling the impact of the arts and social interaction on the kids, whose lives aren't as artistically and socially enriched as some.
"Most of [the teachers] are overwhelmed to see how many people have come out to support them and their students," said Patterson. "The festival presents a rare opportunity for the community to recognize the tremendous dedication of these teachers and to show these students that they are valued."
More information about the program here.