Toni Clifton walked into a conference at Resources for Human Development that her daughter, Stephanie, was attending and was stunned at what she saw. Stephanie is an RHD client with intellectual disabilities, so her appearance there was not particularly unusual. What shocked Toni was the sight of her daughter on one of the panels, leading the discussion.
The withdrawn little girl who’d struggled so hard to find her voice and had always shied away from people finally found a place for herself – and it was at the front of the room, engaging a crowd with the story of her work at Oasis, RHD’s award-winning arts program.
“I was amazed, seeing her,’’ Toni said. “I was so ecstatic.
“I never dreamed by daughter could be like this. I always used to wonder how things would work out. I couldn’t sleep at night, thinking about her. She’s come a long, long way. I’m so happy, and so proud of her.”
Stephanie would have more news for her mom that day: She’d just been chosen to receive the Barbara Foust award from RHD, given each year to the client in an RHD program who has demonstrated exceptional courage, creativity and spirit and best exemplifies Barbara’s character and heart.
“She said to me: Mommy I won an award!” Toni said. “She was so happy and excited.”
Since Stephanie came to Oasis in 2008, she has racked up a number of awards and honors, and shown tremendous personal growth – as well as developed as an artist, showing and selling her work in a number of venues. Some of Stephanie’s paintings are featured in Outside In
, RHD’s online gallery of outsider art.
Stephanie graduated from Temple University’s Center for Disabilities with honors, and has moved into independent living. She works two different part-time jobs, including as a personal home health aide. In addition to her classes at Oasis, Stephanie attends trainings at Visions for Equality, choir practice at SPIN (Special People In Northeast) and volunteers on various projects in the community.
She was one of the dozens of RHD clients who traveled to Harrisburg this summer to advocate for themselves with their state legislators.
“I always used to tell her: You can speak up, Stephanie. You have something to say, you can speak up. But she never did,’’ Toni said. “Now, she speaks up.”
Melissa Ezelle, the assistant director at Oasis who worked as Stephanie’s teacher when she first arrived at the studio, said Stephanie has become a true leader in the program.
“When Stephanie first came to us, she was really shy,’’ Ezelle said. “She barely made eye contact, kept her head down, talked to her chest. We’ve seen real progress in how she connects with others. She’s become an outgoing, helpful, engaging individual. We’ve seen her self esteem grow and grow.
“Now she’s forming relationships on her own, without any prompting from us. She’s taken it upon herself to step out of the bonds of her class and engage with others. For someone who came to us with huge self esteem issues, that’s a big accomplishment.”
Liz McDermott is now Stephanie’s art teacher at Oasis. They take on projects that interest Stephanie, and they are many. She’s currently become fascinated with drawing the human body, so she is pouring through science books and drawing complex pictures of the human anatomy.
“I liked it right away when I started coming here,’’ Stephanie said. “It’s nice to see the staff, people working with people. People enjoy arts and crafts, creating, making something.
“I felt like I was a good artist before I came here. I was drawing when I was 10; my family taught me. But I’ve grown a lot here. It’s fun. If it wasn’t for Oasis, I don’t know what I’d be doing.”
As Stephanie works, she chats happily with the other students, and often engages them on what they’re working on. Afterward, she’ll help clean up. For her birthday, the staff throws an impromptu party, and Stephanie bounces around the room making sure everyone gets a piece of cake.
“She brings people together,’’ McDermott said. “During our Christmas party, she started helping other students in workshop, helping set up and then clean up. Nobody asked her; she took upon herself to volunteer, asking if I needed any help.”
Her artwork has improved dramatically. Oasis offers unique, creativity-based healing and learning opportunities to artists with intellectual disabilities, empowering students to realize their creative potential and find means of personal expression. Classes and workshops help the artists improve their quality of life and gain life skills through creative, recovery-based classes and interaction.
“She’s communicating something, sending a message,” Ezelle said. “To know that someone has received it is so important. The first time she sold a painting, she was just giddy.”
In November, RHD held its annual Values Day celebration, officially announcing the year’s award winners. When they called Stephanie up on stage, she squealed with delight. When they handed her the Barbara Foust Award, RHD’s honor for the client who best exemplifies spirit and heart, Stephanie smiled and giggled. But when the audience began to applaud, and Stephanie found herself standing there alone, that’s when she did something that showed just how far she’s come:
Stephanie called for her friends and the staff who work with her to join her on stage. She laughed and hugged everyone around her, happiest that the group with whom she’s found something so important could celebrate together.