Art Opens Life’s Doors

Upstream Arts helps students find their voice Sarah is a student in the Special Education classroom of Lake Harriet Middle […]

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Upstream Arts helps students find their voice

Sarah is a student in the Special Education classroom of Lake Harriet Middle School. At this time last year, she was unwilling to engage with other students or join in group activities. “English is her second language. She has Down syndrome, and is unable to communicate verbally,” Sarah’s teacher explained. “She has very few social skills or ways to interact with her peers.”

Upstream Arts, a Twin Cities nonprofit that provides arts programming to individuals with disabilities, began its artist residency program in Sarah’s classroom in the fall of 2006. The program uses a variety of art forms –including theater, music, poetry, and visual arts—to develop the social and communication skills of individuals with disabilities.

At first Sarah was resistant to the arts activities. She sat in the circle with the rest of the kids, but refused to participate. Yet each week Sarah showed a little more interest. By the spring semester, Sarah was a full participant in the group. She was acting, moving to music, miming and making exaggerated facial expressions to communicate her feelings to her peers. “This program is perfect for Sarah,” her teacher noted. “It brings her out of her shell and gives her ways to communicate with the other kids through miming and other non-verbal ways. This social interaction is vital for her.”

Upstream Arts is dedicated to helping individuals become more socially independent through interaction with the arts. “Self-expression and social interaction are a challenge for many people with disabilities,” says executive director Julie Guidry. “The arts provide a powerful avenue for self expression and can develop vital social skills like recognizing and using facial expressions and body language, and expressing emotion. For those who cannot communicate using verbal language, the arts provide non-verbal, physical, and visual forms of communication.”

Each class is led by local professional artists—including actors, dancers, poets, visual artists, musicians, and writers—who have been trained to provide programming to groups with a range of abilities. Its programs are inclusive of all individuals with disabilities—including those with cognitive, physical and developmental disabilities. “It’s a real equalizer for all of the kids,” a special education teacher said about the program at her school. “We have a huge range of abilities in the classroom, and all of the activities, whether they are theatrical, visual or involve movement, are all so inclusive. And it’s not just creative. It’s very social. In the programs students are learning to wait their turn, encourage others, and cooperate.”

Julie and her husband Matt formed the arts organization in 2006 after watching their son Caleb, who is non-verbal and has physical and cognitive disabilities, begin to use movement and theater-based activities to communicate with those around him. “My husband Matt is an actor here in the Twin Cities,” Julie explains. “Caleb sometimes attended rehearsals with Matt. In that environment, he began to pick up on the movements and facial expressions of the actors, and began to use these tools to reach out and communicate. Theater opened doors for him, gave him a way to interact with his peers. We believe the arts can open doors for other kids and adults with disabilities to participate more fully in school and everyday life.”

In addition to its school residency program Upstream Arts offers arts workshops and programs in conjunction with other disability-focused organizations in a number of metro areas on school vacation days. For more information visit the organization’s Web site at, or call their office at 612-331-4584.

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