Saturday, February 09, 2013

Loving the Most Lovable People on Earth

A few weeks ago, I started a volunteer job a couple days a week with an extraordinary not-for-profit organization in Great Barrington, MA. Called Community Access to the Arts, or CATA, the group provides an array of arts activities -- from painting and writing to dance, yoga and acting, to adults with disabilities. While CATA has been around for twenty years, I only learned about them through an ad they ran at the local movie theatre a year or so ago. I was intrigued. I adore art and music, and of course, writing -- which I've taught for years at the college level -- is like breathing to me.  I really wanted to volunteer. But deep down, I had to admit to myself, I was a little bit nervous. Would I be a good match for this group? Would I have the patience and tolerance to work with people who were in some cases profoundly disabled?

It took one visit to dispel all of my fears. The moment I walked in the door, I was wrapped in a kind of loving glow that exudes from all of those who are involved in CATA. The truth of the matter: I fell totally in love with all of the adults that I met.  There's a delightful young woman who was my partner rolling beads out of paper mache one day; then a couple days later, she and I sat side by side in the writing class composing a story about her clothes. There is another incredibly sweet older woman who remembered my name after only one introduction. And then there's a young woman who cannot speak. But boy oh boy can she laugh. One day when I walked in, she came running up to me and kissed my hand! I could go on and on: there's the woman who delighted everyone when she wrote about being a clothes "fashionista;" there's the man who always writes two stories during writing class. There's so many more people, so many people who just love coming together to enjoy the arts.

The staff and director of CATA are amazing too. The first day I walked into the CATA office, for my get-acquainted interview, I was greeted by Executive Director Sandy Newman, the woman who had the brilliant idea to start the organization 20 years ago. As we shook hands, I noticed her beaming smile: it was a genuinely happy smile. Curiously, though, the next person I shook hands with, Jeff Gagnon, CATA's program and marketing associate, was wearing the same exuberant smile. And so was the next person in the office. And the next. And the next. It's not often that you walk into an office where everybody just happens to smile as if they are truly in love with their jobs.

Last month, CATA won an award from the Massachusetts Cultural Council; the award recognizes groups and individuals in the Commonwealth state that have achieved outstanding accomplishments in the arts, humanities and sciences. CATA won for providing access to the arts. As it stands now, the group provides arts programming to some 500 disabled adults throughout Berkshire County. In the same week the group was recognized, they also had an art show in Lee, MA, featuring the wonderful artwork of many participants. It's inspiring to read about how volunteers pair up with participants -- some of whom cannot move their limbs -- to produce beautiful works of art.

One day as I was leaving CATA (and more often than not, I just don't want to leave!) I spoke to Sandy Newman. I told her that I was thrilled to have discovered this incredibly loving group of individuals. Working at CATA, I said, was a thoroughly affirming and inspiring activity. She smiled and nodded and acknowledged what everyone who works there already knows: that volunteering at CATA gives back way beyond imagination.

"It makes you appreciate every single thing," she said.

And it reminds you that every single person in the world is precious.

Thank you for this, CATA. Thank you to all the adults who participate, and thank you to all the volunteers too. It's been said countless times before, but volunteer work does wonders for the soul.

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