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ASPiRE Community Partner Spotlight: Art for the Journey

Art for the Journey

By Jenny Pedraza

Every Friday since 2016, Virginia Commonwealth University students in the living-learning program, ASPiRE, travel to Saint Mary's Woods Retirement Community in Richmond. They go to create beautiful abstract works of art with the residents there.

Part of Art for the Journey’s “Opening Minds through Art” (OMA) program, the art sessions are person-centered, intergenerational and evidence-based. Designed by a gerontologist and graphic artist for the sole purpose of using art to help people with dementia, the OMA program has demonstrated significant impacts to elder participants, the families of the elders, care staff and volunteers. Each OMA session culminates in an art show that is open to the public and includes a reception for the artists and students.            

“The results are amazingly positive for both the elders with whom we partner, as well the student volunteers, as they learn first hand what a person with dementia still can do,” said Cindy Paullin, executive director of Art for the Journey. “It is amazing to witness the human connection between young and old and see the joy in the faces of the elder artists and in the students as the beautiful work is displayed and celebrated!”

Art for the Journey’s mission is to overcome barriers and transform lives through art. Through programs serving veterans, the elderly, underserved youth and those who are incarcerated, Art for the Journey goes beyond teaching art techniques and supplying craft materials to offer a safe creative space for individuals to learn and express themselves.

Before beginning with OMA, ASPiRE students receive in-depth training covering the brain, Alzheimer's disease, how the OMA program was developed, how OMA is impactful and how to work with people with dementia. The students benefit from hands-on learning while directly engaging with their elder partners. They are held accountable and are depended on each week, which provides structure for future career success. 

“The students bring energy, joy, commitment and hope,” said Paullin. “Every time a team of ASPiRE students walk in to the OMA session, the feeling that these students truly care and are giving of their time and talent with wonderful positivity speaks to the hope in the next generation to be very competent and wonderfully capable, positive and caring people in society.”

Due to the success of the OMA program at St. Mary’s Woods, Art for the Journey has taken steps to broaden the program’s impact. In partnership with OMA founder, Dr. Elizabeth Lokon at Miami University, Saint Mary's Woods now serves as a demonstration site for practicums conducted by Art for the Journey to certify others to implement the OMA program. Over the past two years, Art for the Journey has certified 73 individuals to implement the program in assisted living facilities in the U.S. and Canada.                                            

This year, ASPiRE’s work with Art for the Journey will expand with a new partnership working in the organization’s children's program at the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School in the East End of Richmond. ASPiRE students will work with underserved middle school students to inspire, engage and support them to achieve. Paullin says her staff is “very excited to work with ASPiRE to transform children's lives through art!”