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University of Tampa art therapy students work with disabled youth


Kaylin Brice offered a choice of glitters to 15-year-old Jonathan Greene — gold or silver.

Jonathan gave her a Cheshire cat grin, but didn't answer.

Brice, 20, may have picked for him — had she not learned some tools for working with people with disabilities.

She held the two glitter bottles out in front of him last week. He pointed to gold.

"Using nonverbal cues lets them participate," Brice said.

She is one of 13 students in an art therapy class at the University of Tampa. The students, under the direction of adjunct professor Heather Spooner, designed a project for an art class at LaVoy Exceptional Center.

The center, at 4410 W Main St., serves 110 students from South and Central Tampa, who are ages 3 to 22 and have a range of disabilities.

Making art is therapeutic because it allows the release of emotions, Spooner said. People who have developmental disabilities, such as autism or cerebral palsy, often have difficulty putting their thoughts and experiences into words. Art therapy gives them a venue to express their feelings and thoughts through images without getting frustrated with the difficulties of verbal speech.

It can help them learn teamwork, work on motor skills and is good for their self esteem, Spooner said. Plus, it's fun. They often don't realize it's therapeutic.

Alora Leuckel, 19, grew up in Honduras and took the UT art therapy class because she knew she wanted to major in art, but wasn't sure what to do with it. She liked working with the LaVoy students. Art therapists typically earn a master's degree in the field and there aren't many in the area, Spooner said.

LaVoy art teacher Holly Loy visited the UT class earlier in the semester to tell them about the challenges of having a disability.

She had each student sit on one of their hands. She paired them with another student, sitting on the opposite hand so that between the two they had a left and right hand.

Working together, they tried to open a marker and blend chalk colors.

"I wanted them to get a feel for what it's like for the kids," Loy said.

The UT students then each came to Loy's class individually. They considered how to make a project that all the LaVoy students could complete successfully and settled on a three-dimensional tree and a large mural with a nature theme. They cut out leaves and flowers of different sizes for the students at LaVoy to paint and decorate.

They talked about how to use multiple senses, such as guiding students' hands or showing pictures instead of using only words to relate.

Loy selected a group with a range of disabilities for the UT students to work with, and Spooner's entire class went to LaVoy last week for the finale to their project.

Spooner and Loy plan to continue the partnership with LaVoy next semester.

Organizers are trying to find a place to display the artwork. One possibility is the lobby of the school district's training facility.

In the classroom, Carly Bishop, 21, helped Michelle Moore, 18, hang a leaf on the tree.

Bishop guided Moore, who is in the vision impaired program, back to the table.

"Here's your chair," Bishop said, putting Moore's hand on its back. Bishop loaded a paintbrush with red paint, put it in Moore's hand and placed her other hand on a leaf cutout.

Across the room, Hope Smith sang a line from Duke's Place to UT student Alyssa Ferrano, 21.

"You sing it real good," Ferrano told her.

A little boy with blue paint on his face and glitter in his hair gave hugs to everybody.

"It's one of the rewards of teaching here," Loy said.

Jonathan squeezed the gold glitter he had picked onto a construction paper flower and then stuck his picture in the middle.

He and Brice put his flower on the mural, which the UT students decided to name Imagination Garden.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at or (813) 226-3431.

University of Tampa art therapy students work with disabled youth 11/11/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 11, 2010 3:30am]
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