It’s been three years since Angella McTire was pleasantly surprised to discover that her 39-year-old son, Carlton Bailey, had artistic talents. Twice a week, Carlton, who has Down syndrome, creates paintings, pottery and more at Friends & Stars, Inc., a Lauderdale-based nonprofit providing high-quality, creative arts programming designed to be all inclusive of special needs populations.
The inspiration for the organization came from one art admirer. “My artwork – a series of Caribbean paintings – was on display at the Schacknow Museum of Fine Arts. There was a gentleman with Down syndrome that came to the museum every day. The museum director asked me what we could do to [further] engage people with disabilities [in the arts],” recalls Dixie Henderson. “So I replied, ‘start a program!’” In 2010, Dixie channeled her ability to turn a blank canvas into something beautiful and launched Friends and Stars. At the time, it was a weekly art program for persons with Down syndrome and held at the Schacknow Museum and, later, county libraries. Demand for expanded services rapidly grew and, in 2014, Friends and Stars opened a 1,900-square-foot facility operating creative studios and administrative offices five days a week with fully-inclusive, disability-centered programming.
“Most of my clients are non-verbal individuals, so when they begin to create and conceptualize something and then reduce it to the canvas… that is speech! Because when you look at the painting, it is clear what they are saying,” Dixie proclaims. Seeing Carlton’s work, which has been publically displayed, Angella agrees that he’s excelling both physically and emotionally through art, stating: “You can see the happiness on his face and he feels productive [with what he creates].”
Friends and Stars hosts about 500 people per month with classes facilitated through “a group of professional artists with a desire to give back to community,” including three instructors and about 15 volunteers. The Saturday Activity Club (for adults 18+) remains the flagship program. It involves drawing, painting, pastels, sculptures, abstract art with recycled materials, jewelry-making, glass-fusion and leather crafting. During the week, Friends and Stars conducts private sessions, group classes and youth programs for both homeschool students and children with disabilities (in partnership with Broward County Public School’s ESE program and VSA Florida, the state organization on arts and disability). “We also host classes for adult women that are especially enjoyed by our mothers who are caregivers” declares Dixie. She says she works harder now as a nonprofit leader during her “retirement years” than during her law career; in addition to facilitating art classes at area senior centers.
Friends and Stars is an affordable fee-for-service organization that off-sets client costs through grants (such as the autism license plate), fundraisers, private and corporate donations, and in-kind contributions. A two-hour professionally-led session averages $15 and includes all supplies. It’s a nominal fee for such a priceless engagement. “It’s really important for special needs people, in general, and their families to have an opportunity to get out of the house and escape the reminder of the disability or the financial impact of the disability. A family can relax, create and work together to make an entire project that they’ll have for years,” says Dixie. In January 2018, Friends and Stars will expand and open an innovative 7-acre campus in Thomasville, Georgia, to include a partnership with the Thomasville Center for the Arts. “We’re becoming a destination beyond the classroom with more activities,” explains Dixie. For more information on programming in Florida and Georgia, visit www.ArtsAndDisabilities.org.