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Artistic gift lends cheer to Santa Dollars

Brooke Becker's greatest wish is to talk again. Her second is to be famous.

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Severely injured 16 years ago in a car accident, the 36-year-old can't see well or use her right hand. She can barely talk. Artistically, though, she has found her voice. Fame may yet be.

This holiday season, Becker's painting has found its way into thousands of homes. She was tapped this year to create artwork for the card that holds the Santa Dollar, a real dollar bill with a removable Santa sticker over George Washington's face. A Clearwater nonprofit organization, Abilities Inc. of Florida, uses money raised from selling the unique dollar bill to help disabled people like Becker.

Becker, a Largo High School graduate, is the first disabled artist to be chosen to create artwork for the card that accompanies the Santa Dollar. In recent weeks, interviews and promotional appearances have kept her so busy that she has found little time for the painting that brought meaning back to her life.

She was 20 in June 1992, when she was critically injured in an automobile accident that left her with collapsed lungs, a crushed pelvis, torn liver, broken collarbone and broken jaw. She spent months in a coma and many more in rehabilitation. For the young woman who had enjoyed a full life that included work, studies, parties, walks on the beach and collecting antique salt and pepper shakers, life drastically changed. Friends eventually moved on, but the staunch support of her parents, Bob and Gaye Becker, and other family members remained.

It was her father who spotted the notice about an Abilities art class for brain-injured patients.

"I couldn't get on the phone fast enough,'' the former vice president of advertising for Eckerd Drug Co. said.

"She took to that like a duck to water.''

Frank De Lucia, president of Abilities Foundation, the support arm of Abilities, said the foundation had just received funding for an artist-in-residence program to help patients with brain injuries.

"The idea was not so much to teach them art, but to allow them to use art as a means of communication, to use art to get back some lost skills, social skills, eye-hand coordination. It so happened that Brooke used my computer. She started by using a computer and evolved into the painting,'' he said.

"I just bought about $100 of greeting cards that she produced, still life and garden pieces.''

Becker is taking a drawing class at the Dunedin Fine Art Center. Abilities Foundation's B&G Endowment is paying the tuition. Last week, she and her parents talked about her life and art. The senior Beckers, who have two other adult children and one grandchild, said their artist daughter's Christian faith has sustained them through trying emotional and financial times.

Last week, with a cane for support, Becker stood by her paint-spattered desk. In a corner were stacks of empty plastic trays from the low-calorie frozen meals she favors. Smiling, she patted her hips, to explain the diet meals. The trays, on the other hand, make handy makeshift palettes.

She pointed to framed paintings, painted birdhouses and rocks. Her father shuffled through a clear plastic container of greeting cards that showcase his daughter's colorful work. They featured blooms of tulips, pansies and sunflowers and tranquil scenes.

"She's amazing with colors,'' her father said.

Becker depends on her parents to help her communicate. Smiles and gestures supplement her halting words. Sometimes, she uses a voice synthesizer. She is generous with hugs.

In April, June Watts, president of Marketing Productions, the Palm Harbor company that created the Santa Dollar, discovered Becker's work at an Abilities luncheon.

Her father had placed her greeting cards on every table.

"He got up and spoke,'' Watts said. "As he was speaking, I was looking at the little cards.''

Afterward, Watts introduced herself to the father and daughter and asked Becker whether she would be interested in creating this year's card. The result is a card featuring a rosy-cheeked Santa and a whimsical Christmas tree, mailbox, North Pole sign and snow-covered igloo.

"Now she is getting e-mails through her Web site saying congratulations for not giving up,'' Watts said.

"It has given her a whole new life, because she has connected to the world. It has done more than I could ever imagine it would.''

The Santa Dollars, which will be sold at Publix supermarkets until Christmas Eve, raised close to $40,000 last year, De Lucia said. The dollar bills cost $2.50 each; a dollar goes to Abilities Foundation, a dollar to the purchaser and 50 cents to printing, promotion and other costs. Publix gets no money, De Lucia said.

That Becker discovered her artistic calling through Abilities and that her work will now enable the organization to help others is worth noting, De Lucia said.

"That's a complete 360 degrees,'' he said.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.

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Artistic gift lends cheer to Santa Dollars 12/13/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 17, 2008 2:24pm]
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