JFS Perspectives

Friday, August 21, 2015

SHALOM Denver PALS Program Becomes ACE: Arts and Community Explorations

The PALS program, an interactive day program for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities at SHALOM Denver, recently got a new name and program manager. Meet Emily vonSwearingen, the new program manager of ACE: Arts and Community Explorations. The name and face behind the program aren’t the only changes, though. Everything about it is getting upgraded to better accommodate the 33 clients who currently attend the program.

“Many people think of ‘arts’ as only visual arts,” Emily explains. “But it includes music, food, literature, culture, and more. We are taking a comprehensive approach to explore these different areas.” Currently, the ACE program offers simple nutrition classes, exercise classes, music awareness and therapy, visual art projects, and a growing library. And thanks to donations from ArtReach, some clients go on weekly outings to local cultural institutions.

A remodeling project is underway to make the program space 40% bigger and will include a kitchenette, sinks, and an accessible bathroom. Since the participants range from 20 to 80 years old and have varying degrees of disabilities, the new space will include zones for clients to work in small groups on different types of activities.

Emily has an extensive background in disability advocacy, education, and therapy. She held director-level positions at many nonprofit arts organizations, and still works as an independent artist and commissioned lead artist for specialized projects. For nearly 15 years, she has been a lead artist for VSA Colorado/Access Gallery in the Santa Fe Drive Art District. She has formalized a partnership with Access Gallery, starting in September, for the ACE clients to work on mixed-media art projects in the gallery twice a month and have their work exhibited. In addition, Emily plans to create progressively more challenging art projects, such as weaving and recycled 3-D art, geared for different ability levels.

Emily’s first focus is the clients—advocating for them and ensuring the other ACE staff members have the tools they need to serve the clients. “This job is so much more than doing arts and crafts; clients have significant needs that staff attend to daily. I am so appreciative of Collette, Keith, and Vanessa, who have worked in this program for 13 years, seven years, and four years respectively,” says Emily. “We all work together as a team and everyone has something to contribute. I am grateful they are open to all the changes we are starting to make to the program.”

Emily and her staff are looking to form partnerships with other nonprofits, such as animal shelters, where the clients can be participants in the community, not just viewers. Emily says, “People with disabilities can participate much more than people think. I want to find long-term volunteer opportunities where we can visit regularly and contribute to meaningful and engaging work.”

Emily’s goal is for the clients to learn something new every day. Through projects, they are developing skills, empowerment, and expression. They are working with different mediums, and exploring new textures, patterns, and dimensions. “It is not about the end product, but about the process,” she explains. Emily recently introduced a hula hoop art project, which was successful in unexpected ways. One client used the project to diffuse himself when he was upset, another learned how to tie knots for the first time, and a client who had been food-focused for years turned the focus to working diligently on the hoops.

In her career, Emily has worked with thousands of people who are underserved, at-risk, and have a wide variety of abilities and disabilities. She has made it her mission to defeat stereotypes about disabilities and show that everyone has potential. “It has been very rewarding to see our clients accomplish something new and see the positive changes in people!” Emily says with a smile.

To learn more about ACE, please contact Emily vonSwearingen at 303.623.0251 x214 or evonswearingen@jewishfamilyservice.org.

-Alaina Green, JFS Marketing Department