‘Everyone is heard and respected’

At RHD’s Valiant Studios, the walls are decorated with murals that the families of the artists contributed, an innovative way to allow them to have a personal impact on the space and be involved in the program.

“I was attracted to Valiant Studios because of the way they met clients where they were,” said Natalie, whose daughter Alex attends Valiant Studios. “Every person in the studio seemed to be able to express themselves creatively and do things based on their abilities and level of interest. We witnessed such freedom of expression.

“There’s a lot of change in Alex since she transitioned to Valiant Studios. She wants to go to Valiant Studios on the weekends; she’s very enthusiastic to show up. Her behavioral problems have really lessened since she’s been here.

“Most importantly, when Alex is here, she’s not a special girl, she’s one of the girls — she’s one of the community. She’s respected and valued. It’s a happy place for her to be.”

Mark calls the day program “an oasis” for their daughter.

“Valiant Studios often hosts art events for all the clients to participate and present their art, and they’ve had events at some prestigious art galleries,” Mark said. “It brought tears to my eyes to see our Alex showing her art. It wasn’t ‘special needs’ Alex, or ‘autistic’ Alex, but Alex as an artist. That was very touching to me, and I really appreciated that.”

When Valiant Studios director Jason Ackland offered Natalie the chance to do a mural at the studio, she jumped at it.

“I’ve always wanted to do a mural,” she said. “To me it’s a great way to give to community. I thought it was brave, to give a newbie like myself the opportunity.

“I was excited to take a role in this beautiful collective space. It was a way to honor what’s being done at the studio — that people can communicate through words, music, drama, or physical movement, all valued and all equal, everyone is heard and respected.

“It’s a fun way to express how we feel about Valiant Studios and RHD, in a way that is semi-permanent.”

Ackland said having families contribute in a way that reflects Valiant Studios’ art-based mission is an extension of the way all RHD programs place a premium on involving families in their services. Staff facilitated family members working in the studio on nights and weekends to finish the projects.

A mural by Billy’s family takes up a wall in the music room. Billy is autistic and nonverbal, and his behaviors can be very challenging. His parents, Dianne and Bill, went through a number of different providers before coming to RHD.

“When we heard about RHD coming to Omaha, they talked about art and music being the emphasis of the program, and I remember thinking, well that sounds wonderful and amazing but I just didn’t see how that was going to fit our son at all, because he’s quite low-functioning,” Dianne said. “But just been amazing and pleasantly surprised by all they’ve been able to do for him.

“One thing that’s been really fun is how our family has gotten involved. Billy is the middle of seven kids, and a lot of our kids are very talented in music and art. It’s been really, really fun for Billy to do art and be in shows where his pieces are displayed. One of the first things we did was get a piece for each of the kids’ families for Christmas.”

“I keep chiding my family — Billy has been the most successful artist of the bunch,” Bill said. “Everybody is amazed at what he does.”

In the early days of Billy’s time at Valiant Studios, staff sent them a photo of Billy at a keyboard in the music room with a staffer named Kealan. The image of their son happily interacting with people became inspired his family to decorate the wall of that room with a mural that truly was a family affair. Dianne and Bill, Billy’s brothers and sisters and their kids all came on weekends and worked on a piece of the wall.

“One of our daughters saw that picture, and she’s very artistic, and she had a vision for a mural,” Dianne said. “Kealan and Billy as the inspiration for the two figures in the middle of it.”

“Everybody had a hand in it, and it was a chance to become a little part of Billy’s life,” Bill said. “RHD really gets the families to participate, invites them in, which is good. And this enabled the family to enter Billy’s world on his terms, instead of the other way around.

“We’ve got seven children and 13 grandkids, and it was pretty much a family effort. Jessica (Taylor, Community Care Specialist at RHD Nebraska) was the one organizing and getting everyone to do their part. Everybody had a hand in it in some way.”

For Dianne and Bill, the mural stands as a reminder of the support they’ve found at RHD.

“We’ll always be thankful for RHD, and mainly the people who are part of RHD and Valiant Studios and their willingness to make a place for Billy that meets his needs,” Bill said. “It’s the people here; they’re special.”