A new program run by Miami-Dade County allows kids with and without special needs to take art classes together — something experts say is good for both sets of youngsters, and which fills a need for arts programs open to those with disabilities.
“I think the whole idea of an inclusion-based program really helps children with autism feel more integrated into their community and accepted by their peers,” said Dr. Jennifer Durocher, a psychology professor at the University of Miami who serves on an advisory panel for the program. “It also has benefits for the peers, because the peers are able to have a new perspective on children with disabilities, and it really helps them develop a kind of pro-social behavior and have empathy.”
The Youth Arts in the Parks program uses local parks to teach children with and without special needs how to paint and sketch and express themselves artistically. The program is a part of the All Kids Included initiative of the Miami-Dade County Cultural Affairs Department. It is funded by a grant from the Miami-Dade Children’s Trust.
Durocher said that children with disabilities often have difficulty accessing social and recreational activities in the community where they feel included and welcomed. She said art programs are really important for building that bridge because it’s something that all children enjoy.
“There aren’t many arts-based inclusive programs and so the idea for this project is long over due but incredibly welcomed,” said Durocher.
Carline Die wanted her autistic son Vladimir Noel to learn to participate in an extra-curricular activity where he could interact with kids without special needs.
Die had been searching for programs that her son could be a part of during the school year. She also wanted him to learn how interact with kids without special needs. She found both of those things in the Youth Arts in the Parks program.
“I’ve been craving for activities for children with special needs in the north,” said Die who found that many programs where located in the southern half of the county. “So having something like this to me is a wonderful thing.”
Francine Andersen is the chief of arts education for the Cultural Affairs Department. She said that she constantly receives letters from parents like Die who praise the program.
“The one big objective is to have something for the kids to be social,” said Anderson who has grown the program to expand to three locations around Miami- Dade. “We’ve had fantastic results.
Anderson said their mission is to increase the number of quality arts experiences for children with disabilities and their families. The three locations include Camp Matecumbe in Kendall, Miller Drive Park in West Miami-Dade and Highland Oaks Park in Northeast Miami-Dade.
Emily Cardenas, a spokeswoman for the Children’s Trust, said they are happy to partner with Youth Arts in the Parks.
“Nothing we fund compares to this. We fund many long-term, inclusive, direct-service programs, but none quite like this,” said Cardenas. “This is very focused on creating art.”
Vladimir began taking art lessons on Sept. 22 at Highland Oaks Park, near Aventura. His mother learned of the 12-week program, which runs through the fall and spring, from Vladimir’s summer camp counselor. Vladimir, a student at Aventura Waterways, has been excited and eager to go back each week.