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Adult Services with Disabilities

Social Enterprise: Sowing The Seeds for Budding Entrepreneurs


Entrepreneurs bud from every branch of our culture.  This includes the disabled, thanks in large part to social enterprises: those organizations that seek to produce profits as a means to widen their social goals and in so doing, often help the less advantaged grow to become economically self-sufficient.

Such is the case at the ART Center in Long Beach, CA, where students sometimes blossom into professional artists and musicians, and in turn, businesspeople.

Cristina Mariotta, Amber Nething, and Sergio Paniagua are flourishing examples of this growth process.  Since starting at the center, each has acquired strong socialization and communication skills while honing their innate artistic abilities.  And each, according to Monica Fernandez, program director at the ART Center, is on the verge of transitioning into a new season of their lives.

“That is certainly something that we expect for these three,” says Fernandez.  “They are all very strong artists and they have developed the social skills that will make them successful.”

The ART (Achieving Results Together) Center is one of four programs run by Arts and Services for Disabled, Inc., a not-for-profit organization that provides assistance to adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, using the arts as a tool to achieve behavioral goals.

Arts and Services for Disabled, or ASD, was founded in 1982 by two music therapists who had the vision to realize that these individuals had much potential, but the services provided to them were not adequate enough to nurture it.

“In the early 80’s, there was basically adult day-care that was offered,” says Fernandez.  The founders felt that more thoughtful programming would lead to active participation and present more possibilities to the programs’ students.

At the ART Center, students take drawing, painting and music classes.  They then use their skills to create unique arts-based products, such as t-shirts and ceramics.  These are sold through the GO! Store, one of three microenterprises operated by ASD:  the others being CafePress, an online store that sells manufactured items such as mugs and notebooks embossed with student-designed artwork, and Epic Arts, which through a strategic partnership with Belli Vineyard allows students to help make the labels for that company’s olive oil and wine bottles.

At the GO! Store, the students help to manage the daily operation, which teaches them vocational skills such as making sales, serving customers and shipping products.“As entrepreneurs, they not only created the store and its logo, they continue to set the pricing and target their customers”, breaking down an item’s appeal based on many factors.

“The idea of a targeted audience gets dissected down to the most minute level and then it grows from there,” says Fernandez.asd2

The students also learn practical business concepts such as budgeting, marketing, advertising, and inventory management.  And this is not just an academic exercise, as they actually earn money from the sales of their products.

In addition to the handmade gift items, original paintings are sold, usually at exhibitions, some for hundreds of dollars.  All paintings are professionally assessed, and one—a large, colorful, collaborative piece hanging high on the store’s wall—is valued at $1500.

Cristina Mariotta was one of the collaborators.  When asked about people buying her paintings, she merely says, “that is a great idea.”

asd4Mariotta, 26, is a dedicated artist.  “She went right from a high school transition program to a junior college,” says Fernandez.  “She started taking painting classes, and the only reason she wasn’t successful with that environment was because she didn’t have the social skills that she needed, so she came here.”

Mariotta brings a lot of personal history into play as she draws and paints.  “She has a great memory and she correlates a lot of that with her art,” explains Fernandez.  “She’ll have a conversation with you as she’s painting or drawing.  She tells you in depth what’s going on.  She’ll make a reference to something in her past.  There’s always a story.”

“One highlight of Cristina’s time at the ART Center was being chosen to curate an international exhibit” put on through the Arts and Disability Network at UCLA. It is the center’s largest show each year.  As the paid decision-maker, Mariotta had to pare down the 100 pieces that were submitted to a more presentable twenty-piece exhibition.

“That dissection process was really intense for her,” says Fernandez.  Mariotta adds, “It teaches you how to define art better.”

When asked about her future, Mariotta confidently states, “sell more paintings.”

Amber Nething, 27, is a real achiever.  She creates many of the designs that the GO! Store uses on their products.  She loves to sing and dance, and for 6 months she rehearsed with other performers at the center to prepare for a presentation of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite.  The show was a fantastic success, and the proceeds from the ticket sales were used to purchase equipment that allows the center to create more and different products.  Nething also holds down a second job doing assembly line work.

According to Fernandez, Nething has grown immensely during her time at the ART Center.  “Through the socialization aspect of our program, she has really been able to work through some of those challenges that come with her disability and also her age.  She is now willing to work with other people, willing to share space, willing to acknowledge other people for their accomplishments.”

Amber thoroughly enjoys her time at the ART Center: “I like to work.  I like my job.”

asd3Sergio Paniagua, 32, is the center’s resident rock star.  He is a multi-talented, passionate performer whose art and music are greatly influenced by his favorite band, Iron Maiden.

“Sergio’s work is the most purchased,” says Fernandez.  “He has exhibited a lot over the last five years and he always wants to be seen more.”

The center presents seven to ten in-house exhibits a year.  Fernandez notes, “he is very adamant about applying for those and he follows through.”

As successful of an artist that Paniagua is, music seems to be his greater love.  Working closely with one of the teachers, “Sergio has written original songs and has performed at some local venues.

“He has grown in terms of establishing relationships, wanting to work collaboratively on music, which is not something he has done in the past,” says Fernandez.

And being able to work is very important to him.  “He is very proud that he earns a paycheck,” notes Fernandez.

“I go shopping, I buy clothes, I buy Iron Maiden,” says Paniagua.  And he plans future projects to insure that the paychecks keep coming.

For their part, the Art Center is always looking for more opportunities to help the students continue to bloom, according to Fernandez.  This includes seeking out new strategic partners in the private sector and working with transition departments at local colleges and universities.

For now, she is excited about the prospects for Mariotta, Nething, and Paniagua, noting, “It’s something to celebrate when our students have outgrown us.”

By Mike Dahl

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About the Author

Mike Dahl

Mike Dahl is a freelance writer, media and communications specialist with over 25 years of experience in radio, television, film, print, and the internet, which includes creating: public affairs pieces for National Public Radio, commercials and station promos for an NBC-TV affiliate, educational productions for the Orange County Department of Education, marketing promotions for leading corporations, and public relations presentations for non-profit organizations. He has also produced three feature films.


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