Long Beach arts program for the disabled celebrates 35 years

Love before learning.

That simple philosophy fuels the multiple programs and services offered by Long Beach’s Arts & Services for Disabled, Inc. (ASD), a nonprofit dedicated to providing life-long learning, community service and vocational opportunities through the creative arts for people with disabilities of all ages.

Helen Dolas founded the organization in 1982, starting her journey with just three students in a parks and rec building in Long Beach.

“It took us two years to change the mindsets of people in the community and various regional centers,” said Dolas, a trained music therapist and music therapy professor at Cal State University Northridge. “Initially people viewed our work as an arts and crafts class, but soon we were able to show our programs are therapeutically based, helping individuals with disabilities grow emotionally, physically and mentally.”

Today her team of 60-plus staff members serve more than 2,000 individuals annually in the community, helping them unleash their creativity to find more confidence, self-identity and even work.

ASD’s team of instructors and therapists are visual artists, music therapists, performers and expressive arts therapists who are professionals in their discipline. Together, they inspire out-of-the box thinking and see first-hand how creativity improves the quality of life for all individuals.

“As a therapist, I’ve seen how music can activate the entire brain in ways that other forms of therapy do not,” said Dolas. “You can create new neuro pathways and then learning can be accessed.”

Dolas’ staff works with individuals with varying disabilities, ranging from autism to severe Down syndrome, but no matter the challenge, she has witnessed transformation when these students have the opportunity to engage in art and music.

In fact, some students have found such a passion they have partnered with the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach to feature their work in various shows, and they’ve also educated the art community about how best to represent those with disabilities in art in an inclusive, respectful way. Others are selling pieces via the Go! Store, an Etsy shop established by ASD in 2010.

In January, the nonprofit launched a new program called the Young Creative Society, designed to bring young professionals together to expose them to art, but also teach them about volunteer opportunities with ASD so they can be ambassadors for the organization.

“One of the things we’ve discovered through the years is that Long Beach is a very arts-driven, compassionate community,” said Megan Hanks, ASD director of development. “We know there are many who are seeking ways to give back, so we wanted to enable these people to network, get creative and also find ways to volunteer.”

Through her three-plus decades of work, Dolas said building partnerships within the community has been key. She has connected with local universities to foster internships and share her research; she has partnered with hospitals and regional centers to create visibility to ASD; and she has of course worked with the arts community and local government and schools.

“We want to be a wonderful model for what inclusion can look like,” said Dolas. “Everybody learns when we bring groups together.”

ASD welcomes the community to join them on June 18 for their annual gala, to be held at the Museum of Latin American Art, and witness firsthand the various aspects of their programs.

The theme for the evening is “COUNT ME IN!”

“It is basically our message to the community – how can we count people in through inclusion – how we can better include our friends from all walks of life and how can we count on you to fuel our mission – to fuel this movement?” said Dolas. “It is an amazing night with lots of music, art and great food.”

Sponsorships are welcome, and the community is encouraged to purchase tickets for the evening to enjoy and also learn more about ASD.

“Of all of the organizations I’ve been able to work with in my years of service, Arts & Services for Disabled is one of the most inspirational and uplifting,” said LA County Supervisor Don Knabe. “The power art can have on the lives of some of our most challenged citizens is real, and I am thankful for the contributions ASD has made to our community. I have no doubt they will continue to grow and thrive.”

To learn more about ASD, visit http://www.artsandservices.org/index.html. You can also learn more about the gala and purchase tickets online.