The atmosphere was breezy, with ample joking around and smiles for all. Hugs were given out like candy. Such was the tone at the Arc of Greater Williamsburg's inaugural arts and culture panel Thursday night, where area artists shared their experience and ideas with the organization's clientele of developmentally disabled adults.
"Everyone is an artist," Sandy Layman said, and that message was clear throughout the night.
Layman is the Arc's development and marketing coordinator, and she also heads the organization's life long learning and arts and culture programs.
"They don't get these opportunities on their own," she said, hoping events like this will have the same impact on the Arc's clients as it might on anyone else.
"Something about the arts is almost spiritual," she said. "It enriches your life."
Layman has been a special education teacher for 17 years. Being part of a military family meant moving often; she taught students from kindergarten through high school in several different states. She always placed immense value on arts and culture, and she set aside as much time for drumming, her preferred method of such expression, as often as she could.
Many of the Arc's clients cannot transport themselves, so the organization handles that aspect. About 40 clients attended the panel.
"This program is bringing the arts to them. Maybe they'll find their niche," Layman said. "Once people connect, it could open this whole new chapter in their lives."
Meet the artists
Four artists representing a range of media came together to form the panel. Blues musician Bobby "BlackHat" Walters was eager to contribute, agreeing before knowing any details.
"This area is very fortunate," he said of the Arc's work. Walters is a longtime friend of Layman and her family, serving as a musical mentor for her two children. They all connected through music, and he hoped to share a similar bond with the Arc's clients.
"Music is a language all unto its own," he said. "Music really speaks to everyone's souls."
He shared a story about visiting his wife's semi-comatose grandmother. When they started playing music, she started singing, only to return to her unresponsive state afterward.
Walters' workshop at the panel hoped to harness some of that musical magic. He played several songs on his harmonica and clients had the opportunity to play back at him, call-and-response style.
"If you can breathe, you can play," he said. "It's the only music you literally breathe."
The retired Coast Guard commander wanted to showcase the instrument's unique sound, which mimics the human voice. He included songs like "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and "Mary Had a Little Lamb."
"I remember that music from when I was little," Stacy Moore, an Arc client of 15 years, said. "I like the music. I love everything."
She was grateful for the opportunity to get out.
"I'm not sitting at home being bored," she said.
Panelist Roxanna Rutter echoed a similar sentiment about the event.
"(Layman)'s really organized quite a wonderful event," Rutter said.
Rutter has used her background in spirituality with her work as a clinical psychologist to help schizophrenics, abused children and the developmentally disabled. She thrives on working with people who are different.
"I'm very interested in very sensitive people, people who are not in the mainstream," she said, hoping to help people discover hidden abilities. "My big thing is tapping into the unique self."
Rutter said our names are deeply important to our sense of identity, and thus her workshop kicked off with a "name game," where participants said each other's names back and forth in a circle.
"That's a way of deep healing, being heard, being seen, of feeling like they belong," she said, adding that those feelings often elude developmentally disabled individuals.
The game was followed up by an African chant call-and-response, an "ancient way of someone being called back to the tribe."
The panel also included Amy Newcomb, a dance instructor from the Institute for Dance on Ironbound Road. She taught clients basic ballet moves and warm-up routines. She spoke about the beauty of how anyone can dance to any kind of music, with nothing more than music and a body to move.
Rounding out the quartet was Pam Woodson, an empirically trained artist proficient in a range of art forms, from photography to needle felting. She showed off a tree she constructed from wire and a multi-colored elephant named Cotton Candy that she made from various wools and stuffed to bring him to life. He sat on a nearby table and observed the night's activities.
For her workshop, Woodson taught paintbrush techniques before helping clients paint their own rocks and contribute to painting a communal canvas, again fostering the idea of connecting with one another.
"It's a typical example of this community coming together," the Arc's executive director, Pam McGregor, said about the recent panel. "Arts and music are so great. It's just a huge benefit."
She hopes events like the panel encourage people to take more time with developmentally disabled individuals.
"There's no prejudice," she said. "They welcome you with open arms."
All one must do is take the time to strike up a conversation.
"They have so much to offer, they just may not be able to articulate as quickly," she said. "They're always learning. We're always reinforcing."
McGregor emphasized the need for places like the Arc. After public schools' special education programs end at age 22, their clients often struggle on their own.
"They're adults for a lot longer than they are children," she said. They are often capable, but job opportunities are few and far between. One client mentioned recently losing her job at a local restaurant and expressed frustration.
Some of the Arcs clients live with parents, some in assisted living facilities and some in their own apartments. Buses and vans pick them up for these kinds of events. The Arc tries to help as much as possible, and the organization doesn't charge for activities, just for transportation.
McGregor mentioned that the Arc is working with a sorority at the College of William and Mary to provide literacy classes for clients. The goal is to spread the "joy of reading" as well as impact clients' health as they learn to read signs, medicine labels, recipes and more.
"We like to refer to our abilities, not our disabilities," she said.
Last year provided one such example of those abilities paying off, when four of the Arc's clients won awards for their artwork at the Occasion for the Arts.
"It was just magical," McGregor said. "They are truly gifted."
Looking forward, Layman said the Arc has similar panels planned for every other month into next year. Those are mixed in with other events like a trip to see a Christmas play, to ensure variety. So far, she's pleased with the results.
"It was exactly what I hoped it would be," she said, adding that the responses she's received have been overwhelmingly positive. She plans to trim the panel down to three members, to allow clients more time with each one.
The Arc is always looking for more volunteers and opportunities to immerse clients in the larger community; they are considering opening up the next panel to the public.
"What I'm excited about is for people to know about what we're doing," Layman said.
Ultimately, the goal of such panels is finding something you're good at and making lifelong connections. Those are ideas that anyone, regardless of life's circumstances, might appreciate.
Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-390-3029.