By Guest Blogger Priscilla Jones
I am currently a stay-at-home mom, but I volunteered at the VSA Arts Festival in 2006 and 2007 while working for Best Buddies, a local nonprofit that provides friendship opportunities for children and adults with special needs. My then-supervisor heard about the festival and decided that the staff could do a sort of service day. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I love all of the arts, I enjoy working with people who have special needs – and of course I love the Cummer – so I was very excited about the opportunity to help. Orientation gave me a great idea of what to expect and provided the opportunity to choose from various activites that were planned for the children. Both years that I participated I found it very difficult to choose just one activity for the day because they all sounded like so much fun!
As someone who enjoys drawing and painting, I chose activities in those areas both years, but there was also music, poetry reading, pottery and many more options. One of the very best things about the activities is that the children are encouraged to do whatever they can and volunteers are asked to coach them through the project but not do the activity for them. This means that the child is participating at his or her ability level and each piece of art is truly their own, whether it is a single line drawn or a completed activity that looks just like the example.
It was so rewarding to help the children create works of art unlike anything they do at their school setting, where arts funding is limited and often either excludes children with special needs altogether or does not sufficiently accomodate their needs. I think it is amazing that the Cummer plans the activities throughout the actual museum rather than entirely in classrooms. When the children work on a project based on a piece of art exhibited at the museum, they are creating their mini-masterpiece in the same room as the prized original! I doubt many museums allow this kind of access, for fear of the possible hazards, so as a Jacksonville native I feel so proud that the Cummer is not just opening the world of art to children with special needs but they are doing so with open arms and open doors.
As for the volunteers, they are also very impressive. While many volunteers come back year to year, there are also many more with little or no experience with children who have special needs. Orientation does a great job at educating new volunteers on basic information to be sensitive and understanding, but all you really need to know is to smile and encourage the children in their artwork, and they can do the rest. When all of the rotations of children have come through your station for the day, you straighten up and then head to lunch provided by the Cummer and can socialize more with the other great volunteers. It’s also a fun perk that you get an event t-shirt that features one of the projects that the children will be making.
On a different note, as a nonprofit event planner, I am so impressed with the level of organization the Cummer plans. From volunteer orientation weeks before the event, to the entire process the day of the event, everything went smoothly because everyone knew what they should be doing and everyone understood how important it was to stay on schedule so that it would not create delays for other groups of children. This requires many, many hours of meticulous planning and the positive results are the proof.
If you haven’t signed up yet to volunteer, do it now. If you can make a donation to support the event, do it now. You will not regret either choice. It is such an incredible experience and I look forward to participating in the VSA Arts Festival for many years to come!
If you are interested in volunteering for the festival, please call Jan Thomas at 904-355-0630.