Upstream Arts Helps Local Schools Use Arts to Include and Empower

Eleven years ago, parents Julie and Matt Guidry founded Upstream Arts. “Our mission is to use the power of the creative arts to activate and amplify the voice and choice of individuals with disabilities,” says executive director Julie Guidry. Upstream Arts emerged from the Guidry’s experience in using the arts as a way to communicate with their son Caleb, who is non-verbal. Matt Guidry, a professional theatre artist and educator, exposed Caleb to the arts at a young age. Caleb began to use skills from the arts, such as movement and facial expressions, to communicate and engage with others. Based on their success with helping Caleb express himself, the Guidry’s knew their approach of using the arts to educate and empower and could benefit others with disabilities, so they created Upstream Arts.

In recognition of their successes in improving the quality of life for children with disabilities, Upstream Arts has been awarded a grant from Paul’s Pals, a Minnesota organization that works to enrich the lives of children with disabilities. The grant will allow expansion of Upstream Arts’ assistive technology to expand the reach of their interactive arts programs in schools, including IPads and BigMack Communicators, an assistive technology device that helps users with verbal expression by recording messages that they can later play back as needed. The grant will also help buy quality art supplies including easels, paints and canvasses and musical instruments. Upstream Arts was also chosen as the featured beneficiary of Paul’s Pals annual Golf Classic and Paul’s Party gala.

The art of social skills

The supplies made possible by support from Paul’s Pals will be used to enhance the “Art of Social Skills” program, the core of Upstream Arts’ work. “All activities are designed to develop social and communication skills. We use art, poetry, music, theater and dance to teach eye contact, how to maintain boundaries and how to read non-verbal social cues,” says associate director Bree Sieplinga. “Students might start with listening to music, and then dance to express how the music makes them feel. They might listen to a poem, and then paint a picture to express what they hear. It’s all interdisciplinary, and it’s all creative.”

“The goal of the Art of Social Skills is to allow students with disabilities to be able to express themselves in non-traditional ways. The students show us who they are and how they want to be present,” says Julie Guidry. “The support from Paul’s Pals will allow us to have a stronger impact and give more students access to our programs.”

The first Art of Social Skills program was offered at Lake Harriet Elementary School in Linden Hills. Washburn High School in Kingfield was also an early participant. “The program has grown tremendously in its eleven years. The Minneapolis Public Schools are a big part of that growth, and are Upstream Arts’ largest partnership. They’re responsive to the community. They contribute ideas, and the relationship is very reciprocal.” At its inception, Upstream Arts ran seven programs. Now Upstream Arts’ teaching artists visit 50 to 60 special ed classrooms a year.

Julie Guidry notes that often when people hear the term “special ed,” they think of school-age children. While children and youth make up the largest segment of participants, by building partnerships with existing disability organizations, Upstream Arts offers programs from birth to adulthood. With over 100 partners in the community, Upstream Arts reaches people with disabilities from age 0 to 75 plus.

Competence in transition

Upstream Arts works with the Minneapolis Public Schools transitional program, which teaches the life skills needed to thrive in the community. (After grade 12, young adults are eligible for special ed services from through age 21.) For these young adults, the focus shifts to skills needed for the workplace. “There’s a lot of teaching out there about how to get a job, but not much about how to keep one. Many of our participants work in the service industry where soft skills are important, and feedback is critical to learning those skills,” says Julie Guidry. “Supervisors often don’t share feedback with employees, and that’s especially true with employees with disabilities.” Teaching artists use theater games and role play to familiarize participants with scenarios they might encounter. “How do you invite someone to shake your hand? How might you ask for help?”

Upstream Arts also partners with health educators to teach young adults about relationships and sex. “Often people in the disability community are considered asexual, and not wanting, or being able, to have a relationship. Over 80 percent of women with disabilities will be sexually assaulted. Lack of information creates vulnerability,” says Julie Guidry, “and we need to change that.”

Passionate teachers

“At the heart of our programs are our teaching artists,” says Julie Guidry. Upstream Arts’ roster of teaching artists reflects its interdisciplinary focus and includes artists like actor, improviser, writer and choreographer Nikki Abramson; playwright, director and composer Anton Jones and Butoh—a type of Japanese dance theater—practitioner, visual artist and puppet and mask-maker Masanari Kawahara. “All of our teaching artists are passionate about our mission. They have active careers as artists in the community. Many have experience working in the disability community or have a disability themselves.”

“Teaching artists pack up their bins and transform the space they’re working in to an arts studio with theater equipment, easels, paints and musical instruments,” says Sieplinga. “They create a program space wherever they go.”

“Yes, and what else?”

Guidry sums up by saying, “If we understand who we all are, we get closer to understanding how we can work side by side and seek friendship with those who move through life differently. Historically, people with disabilities have been separated from the rest of our communities. That’s bad for all of us. It’s all of our responsibility to be inclusive of each other, and the arts are one place where we can share and interact together. We need to talk about what can be rather than not what is not. We say, ‘Yes, and what else? We have an assumption of ability and access,” says Julie Guidry.

In 1996, the family of Paul Adelson created Paul’s Pals to honor Paul’s memory. Paul, who was affected by a disability, lived life joyful and enthusiastically. His bright personality and persistence were the inspiration to create a way to help other kids with disabilities have an increased quality of life.

From helping all kids enjoy play and nature by funding accessible playgrounds and adaptive seats for canoes and kayaks to providing technology for web-based learning, Paul’s Pals helps kids with disabilities participate fully in what life has to offer.

The Autism Society of Minnesota, Courage Kenny Foundation, Pacer Center, Camp Butwin and are just some of the organizations that Paul’s Pals has benefitted.