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Artist-in-residence helps students tap interests to grow creative skills, independence

Cedar Springs — For many people, working on art or other creative projects is a good way to release stress or find new interests. Students in Cedar Springs’ Region 1 Transition Services (R1TS) program discovered this for themselves this spring, thanks to a special artist-in-residency partnership.

R1TS serves post-high-school students ages 18-26 who have cognitive disabilities, helping them build both work and independent-living skills. This population can sometimes be reluctant to try new things, said teacher Nichol Handwerk. 

Grace VanHouten shows off a mobile she made while working with artist Steven Edelman (courtesy)

“We’re always pushing them a little to find new opportunities to get involved in the community or find things they can do at home, because once they turn 26, so many leave with no hobbies, no community connections, and they sit home all day,” she said. “It’s good to get them to step out of their box for a little bit and build those social skills.” 

Handwerk and fellow R1TS teacher Daphne Cattenhead partnered with arts organization Artists Creating Together to have an artist-in-residence for their classes this spring. For six weeks, artist Steven Edelman came to class every Friday to make mobiles and collages with the students. 

The projects started simply and became more complicated as the weeks went on. Edelman had students bring items from home such as pipe cleaners, utensils and paper with which to create. 

But he also encouraged students to add something personal, Handwerk said.

“The neat thing about (Edelman), what I really appreciated, is he had them really think about what their hobbies and passions were, and include that in their style of what they were making,” she said. “Instead of giving them instructions, like just, ‘Here you go,’ he really took it a step further to make them dig deeper.”

During the creative Fridays, the classrooms were abuzz with music and conversation as Edelman, students and teachers all conversed and collaborated. It was a marked change from the typical, quiet R1TS classroom setting, where students often don’t seek out much social interaction. 

Dakota Odren traces his hand for an art project (courtesy)

Cattenhead said it was wonderful to see her students take steps toward building new skills. 

“While he was here, you could hear all these different conversations going on, and it was also cool to watch them getting up to get what they need without asking somebody to help them,” she said. “And to me, that’s a win, because typically they’re happy to sit alone with headphones on and an electronic, and not interact if I don’t make that a priority.

“They’re more independent during those (artist) times, and to me, that’s a great step forward for each of them.”

The R1TS program has partnered with ACT in the past, bringing in special guests for classes on topics such as gardening, drumming, photography and theater. For Handwerk and Cattenhead, the creative courses complement their regular programming, which gives students job-site training, volunteer work and opportunities to work on social skills in different settings.

“We’re really about the transition from school to adult life, and what all of that means,” Cattenhead said. “When they work at the farmers market or the flea market, it gives them an opportunity to work on money skills. We’re trying to instill healthy lifestyle habits, so we will go to the park and walk or play games. And with creative projects, that’s a different social situation, too. So it’s really fun to watch them grow.”

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is a reporter and copy editor, covering Cedar Springs, Godfrey-Lee, Grandville and Lowell. She is an award-winning journalist who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to her alma mater to help manage its national writing festival and edit and write for enrollment communications. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio

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