Developmentally challenged thrive in arts program

By 
  • January 23, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - Victor Bernardo breakdances in the middle of the room as about a dozen Don Bosco Catholic High School students cheer him on. It’s a retreat day with high school students at St. Jude’s Academy for the Arts on Weston Road.

Bernardo, 25, has been attending the arts academy, which is a non-profit day program for developmentally challenged young adults, for several years.

St. Jude’s Academy for the Arts began in 1991. Its founder and director Angela Carboni said she started St. Jude’s after some teachers had informed her about the need for a program for special needs students who were graduating from high school. She was told that they needed an alternative to staying at home all day so they could learn new skills.

Carboni told The Register that the program focuses on arts because it’s universal.

“The arts make everybody equal so that you can share your talents through music and drama,” she said, adding that the arts program has also increased program participants’ self-esteem.

Carboni said she’s seen this in Bernardo through his love for music and dance.

Several day program instructors have also said they’re seeing a benefit from the program. Art teacher Daniela Armocida, 33, said working with individuals with special needs has helped her find direction in her own life. In high school, she said she was “hanging out with the wrong crowd” until she found the program. That’s when she said she got a different outlook on life.

“They make you laugh. They make you cry. They make you happy,” Armocida said.

Grade 12 student Jacqueline Rimocal, 17, said she could relate to the day program students during a January retreat at St. Jude’s.

“You can see yourself in their place,” she said. “It shows that they’re not much different from me.”

Meanwhile, high school teacher Dominic Raso said he has taken his students to the arts program for retreats over the past three years.

“It reminds people that we all have special needs in some shape and form,” he said, adding that students see how people with developmental challenges also have special gifts.

But with a 25-per-cent loss in donations this year, the program could be another casualty of thinning philanthropic resources amid the economic recession.

Carboni said the program costs about $385,000 to run each year. The program’s main sources of funding are from private donations and fund-raisers, including a monthly bingo event. But Carboni said there are fewer donors, including a major private donor who has recently pulled out. Some of her students are also receiving less in provincial government funding known as the Passport Initiative and new students haven’t been approved for this funding. The Passport Initiative provides funding for individuals with a developmental disability in Ontario who have left school and are no longer eligible for school supports. It offers funding for community-based activities which can help individuals with special needs in their personal development. 

Even with dwindling donations for St. Jude’s Academy, about 30 people are being subsidized by the arts program this year. St. Jude’s supporters say Bernardo and the other 59 people who are attending the arts program have been thriving in the program which provides lessons in dance, drama, arts and crafts. They argue that not only is it helping program participants, but it’s also teaching high school students who attend retreats at St. Jude’s about inclusiveness and encourages them to seek out their own talents.

“St. Jude’s is a little bit of heaven in the city,” Carboni said, adding that students also learn about faith in action.

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