Program puts art within REACH

Courtesy Photo Chris Bullock works in the kitchen at Art in the Loft.

ALPENA — Simple lessons in art and cooking, offered with compassion, put a brighter future within reach.

For several years, Art in the Loft has sponsored a hands-on art program for Alpena’s special education students. The Recognize Everyone’s Abilities and Creative Hearts (REACH) program focuses on bringing life skills to special-needs students through the arts.

The program was recently expanded to include students from Pied Piper School, which serves students ages 3 to 26 who are cognitively or multiply impaired.

Thanks to a grant from the Community Foundation for Northeast Michigan, a new class of students from Pied Piper was able to spend Wednesday afternoon studying color and learning culinary skills in a chef’s kitchen at Art in the Loft.

A pilot program with a few Pied Piper students last winter was successful enough to encourage REACH Coordinator Denise Cooper to apply for the CFNEM grant that allowed this year’s eight-session program to be held in the Loft’s pleasant, third-floor space overlooking downtown Alpena.

Courtesy Photo Emiley Gauden works on a project at Art in the Loft as part of the REACH program designed to bring life skills to special-needs students through the arts.

The experience in Art in the Loft’s well-appointed kitchen adjacent to the art space gives students practice with fractions, counting, communication, and kitchen skills as basic and as challenging as cracking an egg.

“Next time, it will be over the bowl,” Cooper grinned.

Art projects are not only calming but a confidence-booster for the Pied Piper students, according to teacher Janis Sahr. The time in the studio will give students the opportunity to see themselves as artists.

“There’s never anything wrong with art. Where academics can be a struggle, art is always correct,” Sahr said.

Any outing into a public venue is an opportunity for Pied Piper students to practice valuable life skills that they will need when they leave the school. Simple but important skills such as instruction-following are reinforced by the kitchen and art projects at Art in the Loft.

“For our students to make eye contact and say their name to somebody, those are accomplishments,” Sahr said.

Cooper, a retired teacher, helped develop the REACH program several years ago and has had the joy of seeing the program’s impact on its participants.

“They feel the freedom they have here. They’re very at ease, very comfortable,” Cooper said. “Like any other student.”

Each student will do five art projects and Art in the Loft will have those projects turned into high-resolution scrims that will hang in the windows of multiple downtown storefronts.