Kokua Services’ Creative Community Programs for Adults with Disabilities
By Tari Gunstone
Community Spotlight is a series that aims to celebrate the places in Olympia that advocate for the individuals and institutions that have been devalued and threatened by the Trump administration. Throughout Donald Trump’s campaign and during his first month as president, he has targeted immigrants, african-americans, latinos, people with disabilities, women, transgender and non-gender conforming individuals, as well as even the arts and journalism. Protesting against his hateful words and acts toward these communities is essential, just as showing up for them with our time, actions, and services is a necessary component of solidarity. Community Spotlight hopes to facilitate awareness and opportunities for volunteering and community support. If you’d like to suggest any nonprofits or community groups in Olympia that are doing great things, email email@example.com with the subject: Community Spotlight.
Community Spotlight features Kokua Services that provides residential services to support 50 people with disabilities, promoting independence and enriching lifestyles in their community. Kokua’s two unique community programs creating space for volunteers are Hummingbird Studios, an all-inclusive art space for individuals with disabilities and any other friends that want to join, and the LEAD program that pairs Evergreen student tutors with a Kokua member for a collaborative, one-on-one learning experience.
When you walk into Hummingbird Studios at the Arbutus Folk School in downtown Olympia, you are greeted with a bounty of hellos and smiles. The brightly yellow painted walls and colorful, hand-made name tags that each person wears help facilitate a friendly space to create art. Each morning and afternoon session on Wednesdays starts with introductions, an overview of the studio’s rules, and loose instruction or a theme for artists to work with. Everyone creates at their own rate for the next two hours, sharing their work and offering compliments to others.
Hummingbird Studios is not, however, a “disability arts program.” It invites people of all communities and ages to participate. Kokua’s community program coordinator, Randi Miller, shared that the concept for the studio, “was born from the idea that art is a universal language that crosses many boundaries,” and that Kokua saw “firsthand the importance of community inclusion.” Looking around the tables, that idea seems to be working as participants range from 5 to 60 years old, many of whom are not individuals that identify with a disability.
Participants have expressed that Hummingbirds Studio is “a dream come true.” Last Wednesday I overheard a new participant say to himself, “man, this is really cool.” From my own experience in volunteering the past couple of weeks, I’ve found it wonderfully relaxing and nourishing to sit down and do art without any pressure to finish or make a masterpiece. It’s also beautiful to observe how people with varying abilities and disabilities create, both individually and together.
This idea of collaboration extends throughout Kokua’s programs. Their LEAD program (Literacy and Education for Adults with Disabilities) pairs student tutors with Kokua members, providing a one-on-one opportunity for both the tutor and the individual with a disability to explore topics together and gain knowledge to achieve their education goals. Evergreen’s Center for Community Based Learning and Action helped create the partnership between Kokua and Evergreen back in 2011.
One student who participated in the LEAD program as a tutor said that the project, “was one of the healthiest collaborative endeavors I have ever been a part of.”
Another shared that both of the individuals they work with have given them a sense of direction, “in terms of what I value in a working relationship and also in terms of my purpose as an advocate and as a part of a diverse community.”
Lana Melchers, an Evergreen student who tutors through the LEAD program, told me that the people she works with have become dear friends of hers and expressed that, “we are both really learners in the situation.”
Melchers told me how she’s often inspired and filled with joy in her heart after leaving their sessions. In LEAD, the learners determine what they want to learn based on their educational goals and personal interests. For Melchers, writing and storytelling has been a strong theme for the people she mentors. They also spend some time on practical skill-building like money exchange or dip into fun, hands-on projects like learning how to make a broom and spending time playing piano together. Sometimes these subjects carry over into the student’s art at Hummingbird Studios. One LEAD student and Hummingbird participant spent his wednesday art session drawing colorful Civil War historical figures in celebration of what he had recently learned working with his tutor.
Melchers explained that it’s up to her as the tutor to come alongside the student with both imaginative and constructive ways to facilitate their learning goals while also working on her own objectives to learn teaching skills for her goal in becoming a special education teacher.
Working with the passionate imagination of Kokua members in this collaborative way has helped Melchers continually shed herself of the, “ingrained beliefs on one due to a disability that must be un-learned, especially on a societal level.” She has worked with individuals with disabilities since high school, so it has felt very natural for her to not see the disability in the person as their defining factor, but rather first and foremost see “people as people.”
This echoes the first rule of basic etiquette in interacting respectfully with individuals with disabilities that Randi Miller shared with me; use “person first language” such as “person that is blind” rather than “blind person.” Both Miller and Melchers expressed that no special skills are needed to work with individuals with disabilities but simply an open mind and open heart where kindness, patience, compassion, and a sense of humor and desire for having fun and creating friendships flourish. Other recommendations for volunteers working with people with disabilities stem from the principle of treating people as people – only offer assistance after asking, speak in a normal tone and voice, address them rather than their helping companion, respect their assistive devices, and remember that they have the same interests and desires as you.
While volunteering at Hummingbird Studios or with the LEAD program can be a helpful pathway for students wanting to continue working with people with disabilities through becoming teachers, occupational therapists, and social workers, the opportunity is likewise a great way to explore creative modes of learning and creating, make new friends, learn more about a community of people that offer new perspectives, and celebrate and stand up for a community that has so often been stigmatized and treated inequitably.
Volunteers make this meaningful, collaborative work and diversification of community a reality. To join in on the art fun at Hummingbird Studios on Wednesdays at the Arbutus Folk School in downtown Olympia or to express interest in participating in the LEAD program as a tutor from January-June next year, email Randi Miller – firstname.lastname@example.org.