When it comes to supporting people with developmental disabilities through art-making, the activities are much more than just a pastime.
For some in St. Louis, being creative helps them buy food, or get a job. Those are goals – and outcomes – of a St. Louis-area organization called Artists First. But budget cuts are jeopardizing the nonprofit, forcing some hard decisions.
The St. Louis Office for Developmental Disability Resources plans to cut 20 percent of the nonprofit organization’s $160,000 annual budget.
Artists First Executive Director Sheila Suderwalla said the organization will have to cut costs. But it remains committed to its 200 clients, who draw, paint and sculpt at the organization's Maplewood studios.
“On paper, in black and white, it looks pretty bad,” Suderwalla said. “But in our heart of hearts we have a lot of a faith.”
The 10-year-old organization provides creative space, art teachers, social workers and materials to clients with a number of disabilities including autism, Down's Syndrome and traumatic brain injury.
On a recent day, the artists’ work-in-progress included a reclaimed window panting and a decorated mannequin.
Among those who depend on Artists First is Mary Dandridge, 56, who showed a visitor several of her own paintings on display, including a cross.
But mostly, Dandridge likes to make rainbows.
“Rainbows make me feel good,” she said.
Dandridge is proud of her work. But Artists First builds more than self-esteem for people with developmental disabilities.
It also provides income for clients, who sell their artwork for up to $125 at their art shows and a variety of other interested buyers. Charles Baunach has sold several walking sticks he made out of golf clubs and baseball bats, using the money to supplement his disability payments. Last week, Baunach got a $24 check for a small painting of trees.
“That’ll help me out the rest of the month for food, cheapest food I can get hot dogs, baloney, bread and stuff like that,” he said.
From terrible news to bad news
Baunach can’t imagine what he’d do without the money from his art. But Suderwalla can’t help but imagine the worst. On May 6, when the Office for Developmental Disability Resources first told her it needs to cut Artists First’s funding, it said it would have to do so by nearly $80,000 – half the nonprofit’s total budget. Suderwalla immediately feared that the organization might have to close.
“It was absolutely a thought,” Suderwalla said. “It was more than a thought.”
Deep cuts would affect several programs, including supportive employment, which teaches clients about things like communication and time management. Suderwalla said there are only so many ways she and her staff of five can make up for that kind of money – rent, utilities, payroll or art supplies.
Last week, Suderwalla made her case before the city agency, and officials reduced the proposed cuts to $31,000. The board of the funding organization will take a final vote in early June. Ken Franklin, who chairs the board, said Artists First is a promising program that needs to be supported.
“One thing I think is right with St. Louis in this community of developmental disability is that it’s a family community and we work things out,” Franklin said.
Already, to make up the difference, Artist First employees have agreed to donate some of their time. Small checks and offers of art supplies are also coming. No matter what, Suderwalla said she’s committed to her clients.
“They have had so many obstacles to overcome, yet they keep doing it every day,” Suderwalla said. “Mary gets up at 5:30 in the morning and takes two buses to get here.”
Brandon Harris, 34, gets a ride there with his mom. He’s on the autism spectrum and doesn’t talk but Mercydee Harris said her son’s drawings of city skylines speak volumes about his hopes and dreams of travel. She said the closing of Artists First would be a tremendous loss.
“Because this is Bran’s life — here, where he knows he belongs,” Harris said.
Mary Dandridge also feels at home at Artists First, and enjoys the attention she gets here. She likes it when the staff members tell her she’s doing a good job.
“It makes you feel really, really, really good,” Dandridge said.
Suderwalla has until July 1 to figure out how to keep things running with less money.
“We are determined to make it,” she said.
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL