first-of-its-kind program in the state has awakened the muse in a growing number of local, developmentally disabled residents while building self-esteem — and possibly creating future outlets for personal income.

So it is for the new Education and Enrichment Program at Developmental Services Inc., the nonprofit Columbus-based agency with 1,800 clients in 42 counties in Indiana. Three hundred of those clients live in Bartholomew County.

The project’s education aspect: workers who normally are paid for repetitive, piece-assembly work for area industries now are given the option to draw, paint, make pottery or find some other creative or practical activity to tackle such as cooking and raised-bed gardening. The enrichment element: some workers who seldom spoke at all over the years suddenly have begun conversing and sharing openly — and the program began only a few weeks ago.

“I love this even better (than assembly),” said client Crystal Graham, 31.

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She beamed as she displayed her latest creation: a colorful, whimsical, oversized Chesire Cat from “Alice In Wonderland.” The meticulous, papier-mâché piece will serve as part of the decor for DSI’s upcoming area annual prom May 21.

Alycyn Pratt, DSI’s Education and Enrichment coordinator, said such art projects are helping clients piece together confidence, a willingness to explore their gifts and find newfound joy in their work.

“I think this already is making a huge difference,” Pratt said.

Tom Harpring, DSI’s director of communications, mentioned that part of the excitement of the program is seeing clients’ personalities and interests blossom. One focused, industry-minded assembly worker has surprised some staffers by finding exuberance in needlepoint.

“Who ever would have known some of this?” Harpring said. “There were some of these opportunities available before on a limited basis. Now they can be an everyday activity.”

The new movement sprang from a concept from sheltered workshop experts Susan Dlouhy and Patty Mitchell, who travel nationwide encouraging agencies working with developmentally disabled people to give them “making space” to be creative and subsequently grow personally while discovering gifts and talents. The two recently visited DSI’s Columbus location and helped launch Education and Enrichment.

Dlouhy boasts years of work with the developmentally disabled, and Mitchell is an active artist. In part, the pair’s research shows that people with developmental disabilities are more likely to jump headlong into artistic or creative pursuits than the population at large.

“They get lost in the moment,” they wrote in their book, “Upcycling Sheltered Workshops.”

Plus, DSI clients such as 30-year-old Bill Getz now paint patriotic scenes in tempera partly for the sheer joy of the process and partly because it’s part of his new framework toward independence and productivity.

“And because I’m a proud American and I love my country,” Getz said.

Then the artist furtively glanced around at his coworkers and leaned forward with a grin. There is another reason, truth be told.

“It keeps me away from all the drama in here,” Getz said as a staff member laughed.

Pratt is implementing the program in all of DSI’s locations.

A Cummins Foundation $23,000 grant covered the cost of the program launch as staff pursue other grant options for funding.

A Cummins Inc. Six Sigma team helped DSI gather data from clients about what they wanted in their day program that is meant to give clients purpose and independence. A cross-section focus group of 70 DSI clients across seven counties offered suggestions about what activities they would like to try or pursue.

“This really is just the first step,” Pratt said. “We’ll take the data and the curriculum and build more into it. But this is a great way to kick off the future of our day program. Maybe the best thing about this is that we are creating more chances for self-discovery — special skills, talents, and passions — for the people we serve.”

Harpring, a longtime DSI staff member, said the program has sparked as much excitement as any new effort he has seen in his tenure with the agency.

“It’s so easy to see the impact,” Pratt said. “I think that this will be life changing.”

How you can help

Developmental Services Inc. is seeking a range of donated items for its creative “making space” of its new Education and Enrichment Program.

  • Various fabrics (cotton, upholstery fabric, sheets, curtains, bed spreads)
  • Thread, yarn, embroidery thread
  • Embroidery hoops
  • Tempera paint
  • Paint brushes
  • Plastic containers
  • Brown paper grocery bags
  • Wrapping paper
  • Buttons
  • Beads
  • Costume jewelry
  • Lace and ribbon
  • Craft materials
  • CDs
  • Objects to paint: wooden furniture, tables, chairs, lamp shades
  • Sand paper and sanding blocks

Items can be dropped off from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays at DSI’s office at 2920 10th St. in Columbus.

Information: 812-376-9404 or dsiservices.org.

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Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.