story and photos by Mike Sargent
At 1622 Route 332 in the town of Farmington sits a brick farmhouse which dates back to 1814. Today, it is the headquarters of a vibrant organization known as The Cobblestone Arts Center. The community art center, founded in 1983, offers an art-centered day program for adults with disabilities plus community classes in art, theatre, music and dance. It also provides a unique after-school program and a new theater space for live performances. It has always been inclusive of all ages and abilities.
When founder and Executive Director Lorene Benson perceived a lack of available instruction in the arts, she started a school for dance and theatre. When she opened the first version of Cobblestone Arts in Victor, it quickly grew to 40 instructors and 500 students in dance, music and visual arts.
During the 1980s, Lorene created Wheels in Motion, a dance company that includes persons who use wheelchairs.
Having welcomed students of all abilities, Benson became concerned about programs for people with developmental disabilities. She felt the existing programs did not have high enough expectations and looked more at maintaining the status quo. She also sensed a lack of joy, and creative expectation. Lorene determined that a program based around the arts would be a better idea. In 1999, Cobblestone received the go-ahead for its concept Celebrating the Arts Day Habilitation, which began with 10 students. Today there is also another program called Day Habilitation Without Walls.
By 1995, Cobblestone had purchased the Farmington house along with 15 acres. It was renovated to serve as office and studio space. In 2006, the center undertook an expansion program and today features more than 5,000 square feet of studio space and a 5,000-square-foot theater that accommodates up to 150 people.
Cobblestone’s fleet of 10 buses transports developmentally disabled students round trip from Ontario, Wayne, Seneca, Livingston, Yates and Monroe counties. They participate in programs Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. all year long. On any given day, the Medicaid-waivered programs serve up to 90 students ranging from those who are transitioning out of high school to senior citizens.
After they arrive, they begin a day that includes one-hour classes in different art disciplines. It’s important for Lorene to hire artists who can work well with the students, she says. It is apparent from observing their interactions with students that the teachers are not only trained and experienced artists, they are also compassionate by nature.
Every three months the staff co-creates a new theme and develops a curriculum for that theme. At the end of the three months, they showcase their work in a public performance. Themes have included, Let’s Go to the Movies, Best of Broadway, Celebrating Local Arts, and Wellness.
I sat in teacher Leigh Lalik’s class where the students (myself included) learned about a couple of artists with local connections: Eloise Burns Wilkin and Oren R. Lyons, Jr. The students used their work as inspiration for their own art. In Adam Surasky’s music class, I was treated to a percussion concert and open mic performances by two students.
Day Hab Without Walls
A second program involves students who seek to be more independent. For these 35 to 40 students, emphasis is on social skills, coping skills, shopping, and use of money. After meeting each morning for exercise including yoga, they will spend the rest of the day “without walls” on field trips to museums and art galleries, concerts, movies, shopping, and baseball games.
Candice Finster, who runs this program, says that each activity is designed so students can encounter and learn from situations they will face as they become more involved members of their communities. I accompanied them to Best Foot Forward during a kids’ summer theatre camp where the campers performed numbers from “Annie.” The Cobblestone group sang a few songs and then performed a dance number (joined by Lorene) to music from “Grease.”
What defines success?
“Wellness for the whole person is part of our philosophy,” says Sarah Andreacchi, Cobblestone’s performing arts coordinator. “We are on a mission to promote wellness for the whole person, and that includes exploring their creative side. Art is the common denominator in our approach, whether it’s through classes, private instruction, free events, or affordable live performances. We believe in the power of art as a healing force.”
So if each activity with a student or a member of the general public promotes the wellness she speaks of, positive results will follow.
Concrete successes may be a smile, a report from home that the student had a good day, a demonstration of social or coping skills without staff prompting, and other signs of growing independence. Also the increase in the numbers of students joining the program is a measure of success.
The Cobblestone Players
Established in 2017, this community theatre group of 30 offers its members the opportunity to rekindle an old love of acting, for instance, or to try something new. Under the direction of Helena Brasley, the group performs up to eight theatrical productions each year. This year, the players performed “The Addams Family Musical” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” “Into the Woods” and “Nunsense” will be performed in 2019.
Musical performances, dance, and exhibitions by local artists also take place along with classes in fitness and the arts for community members.
I am reminded of two quotes attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him,” and “Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he could be, and he will become what he should be.”
I believe that each of Cobblestone’s 50 caring and talented staff members, plus volunteers, embrace these thoughts. In their daily workings, they seem to look past disabilities and instead look to see other abilities and nurture them
Celebration of Youth
This year, for the 18th time, Cobblestone Arts Center held its Celebration of Youth (COY), a three-week summer work program for teens ages 13 through 19 – some of whom are considered “at risk” – from suburban and rural school districts and from the city of Rochester.
Forty-two participants were enrolled in the program. Among them was a special-education teacher who is looking to become an art teacher.
COY offers its participants the opportunity to work with students in Cobblestone’s year-round arts-based program for adults with developmental disabilities. As employees, they are paid $20 per day. For some of them, COY is their first real job.
This summer, COY students divided into groups to concentrate on either music, dance or visual arts in this year’s theme, “Let’s Go to the Movies.” The program that the COY participants and students prepared was presented to an audience of family members at the program’s end.
I sat in on some of the sessions. On the first day, the COY students seemed somewhat reserved, not knowing what to expect. One of the Cobblestone teachers told me that in the beginning, the COY students were unsure but curious about interactions with their Day Hab counterparts, but they quickly became interested, and helpful. This is what Cobblestone hopes for, that “the teens will gain real-world work experience and learn respect, kindness, compassion and responsibility. In addition, they feel that the Day Hab students learn from their contact with youth from different backgrounds.
The showcase included artwork inspired by the movie songs chosen, and a song and dance revue featuring 13 songs. As I watched the showcase I was treated to much singing, dancing, smiling, and collaborative interaction; in short a CELEBRATION.
Celebration of Youth is made possible by donations, and grants from local businesses and foundations.
As a nonprofit organization, Cobblestone appreciates financial support from local businesses, foundations and individuals, and from fundraisers and performances at the center. To see a schedule of events and classes visit cobblestoneartscenter.com.