Photo submitted by Lori Kissinger
A young man with severe autism can barely speak in conversation, yet he takes the stage confidently to sing along with Josh Turner at the Grand Ole Opry. A dance group comprised of students with Down syndrome performs at an MTSU football game. Mentally disabled students teach their peers with no handicaps how to shape and paint handcrafted pottery.
“Even though some of these young people may not appear to you to have skills, when you give them something to do in the arts, many times they excel and they become the leader,” said Lori Kissinger, Executive Director of Very Special Arts Tennessee and professor of organizational communication at MTSU.
Very Special Arts (VSA) Tennessee is part of an international affiliation funded by the Department of Education that works with young people of all disabilities to help them have fun and grow intellectually through artistic engagement.
“The arts create a level playing ground in a lot of ways,” Kissinger said. “[For] most of us, and I don’t care if we have a disability or not, adding an artistic aspect helps us learn more.”
Because of Kissinger’s connection with MTSU, the college plays a large role in many of VSA’s activities. Movement Connection, the dance group for students with Down syndrome, is directed by MTSU alum Danielle Clement and performs at the college’s sporting events. Organizational communication majors also volunteer for VSA and intern for Kissinger to gain experience and help make these programs possible.
One young woman in particular has made contributions that are being appreciated around the world.
“When I started my internship, I thought I was just going to be doing phone calls and emails, maybe doing a little local stuff,” said 21-year-old intern Hannah Holladay, a shy smile lighting up her friendly face. “In the meantime, it was VSA’s 40th Anniversary.”
VSA celebrated this anniversary last summer and honored its founder, Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, with an international project: a quilt made up of original art squares submitted by the 89 VSA affiliates across the U.S. and around the globe. VSA Tennessee wound up leading the charge with Holladay making most of the international connections.
“Most of these affiliates are small shops … so to meet deadlines and get something done that is not typically on their radar, it’s tough,” Kissinger explained, expressing a problem often faced by non-profit organizations.
Holladay, however, with her quiet demeanor, set about the daunting project with a determination and charm that overcame language barriers and gained her some prestigious admirers.
“[France], for a long time, would only respond to Hannah,” Kissinger amusedly remembered. “Then, when we had our event in Washington D.C., several of the embassies came that represented the countries we worked with. But in the case of France, they sent someone. Someone came from France to the U.S. Capitol, and he wanted to meet Hannah.”
After it was presented to Ambassador Smith, the quilt was placed in the Art and Embassy program, where it will travel to embassies around the world forever as a testimony to the artistic works of VSA and the dedication that MTSU has to the program.
“Because MTSU is so involved with so many things VSA does, a lot of things happen in Middle Tennessee,” Kissinger said. “The international portion really is more recent and it happened mostly because of this 40th anniversary, but we liked it so well and created such good partners in other countries that we didn’t want to stop it.”
MTSU has recently been involved in projects that tie local and international affiliates together. For instance, Holladay headed an exchange project where she taught “saori,” a form of Japanese weaving, to a class of local VSA students.
“I got into contact with some people from Antioch high school, and I worked with their group of students there with disabilities,” Holladay said. “I had never done anything like that before, so I was super nervous, but it went really well. They all made friendship bracelets (and) we were able to send a few to Japan.”
MTSU’s recording industry also gave VSA’s Young Soloist group the honor of recording a session to send to Ireland and be broadcast on the radio there. Ireland responded with a session of its own.
“It gave them a whole new audience that they wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Kissinger said.
No matter how much Kissinger and Holladay work to teach disabled students, they agree that one of the best parts about VSA is what the students give them in return.
“I do a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff, so it’s always hard to get people involved,” Holladay said. “But then when you go to events and you see how much fun the students have and the things that they’re able to create, and they’re so proud … that’s what it’s all about to me.”
To learn more about VSA Tennessee or discover how you can get involved, visit their website at vsatn.org.
This story appeared in the Nov. 30, 2015 print edition of Sidelines. Copies are currently available for free on stands throughout MTSU’s campus.
To contact Lifestyles editor Tanner Dedmon email firstname.lastname@example.org.