Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Distinguished Artist Veterans

Hi VSA Texas Community! It’s April here, and I wanted to tell you more about one of my favorite programs I am working on called Distinguished Artist Veterans. This is our veteran services and we started it in 2009. It has been growing steadily over the years and I am really excited about the way it is headed.

We started Distinguished Artist Veterans as an art exhibit featuring works by Texas Veterans with disabilities. That exhibit became an annual event and our next one is coming up in November/December with a display by 22 veteran artists at The Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio. We will have some great work on display, including this piece Holy F@!#ing Brain Damage by Jenna Paige Donnell.

Jenna is currently in the Texas Army National Guard. She says, “This acrylic/ mixed medium painting is an ode to Traumatic Brain Injury, and the many wounded vets with combat related, or induced Multiple Sclerosis, that others and myself have had to endure. The title is an ironic statement of the actual problem that so many veterans are now being faced with. I came up with the concept to raise awareness to this under stated problem.” If you are in San Antonio I highly recommend you attend this exhibit. The opening reception will be Thursday, November 6th from 6-8 pm.

I really enjoy putting together this exhibit and meeting new artists and helping all of our veteran artists gain access to the resources they need to further their careers in the arts. Did you know that there is a movement nationwide recognizing the importance of the arts to our military and veteran communities? Through extensive research we found that many arts and veteran service organizations are rallying around our troops to make sure that they have the power of the arts as a tool to express themselves creatively.  For those who have endured the harsh conditions of military conflicts, music, writing, performance or visual art can be a welcome outlet.

Our involvement in this effort has gained us many new partnerships with organizations such as the VA and their National Veterans Creative Arts Festival. We help host the local competition here at the Austin VA Outpatient Clinic.

The Telling Project is another great organization that provides personal storytelling and theater for veterans. They are hosting a performance in San Antonio at The Tobin Center October 1-5 and then in Austin at the B Iden Payne Theater, University of Texas October 25, and at the Austin Playhouse November 7-9.

The Veteran Artist Program is hosting their annual Arts and Service Celebration in Austin from October 19-25. This is a great opportunity for veterans interested in the areas of visual art, performing art, writing, film, and new media to network with professionals in the field. Registration is open now at

I am really excited about the great opportunities being made available for our Texas veteran artist community and look forward to being involved in many more to come!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

OMOD Goes to El Paso

Hey Folks! This is Eric, your Opening Minds, Opening Doors (OMOD) project coordinator and resident birthday dude. I have been tasked with blogging about our recent OMOD program launch in El Paso, so here goes:

On Thursday afternoon, August 28th, I flew to El Paso with Celia, our OMOD project director, and Caleb, my Mexican-American, punk-rock personal care attendant of four months. Despite my ever-present distrust of airport wheelchair handling, we arrived safely in El Paso, and I got my wheelchair back from under the plane without any serious problems (of course, I only fly with my back-up wheelchair, so it’s not like I even give the airlines a chance to break my chair.) The three of us settled in nicely at the Radisson Hotel just outside of the El Paso Airport. After enjoying an appetizer of chips, salsa, and popcorn at our hotel’s happy hour, Caleb and I embarked on a journey to El Chihuahuita’s Tacos Al Pastor, just a few miles down Montana Avenue.

Caleb and I had such great faith that the little hole-in-the-wall of a place would deliver us to the taco promised land that when we saw it was not accessible, we decided to just get our food to go and take it back to the hotel. Upon our return, we set ourselves up at a patio table in the hotel courtyard, spreading out our chicken fajitas, carne asada, barbacoa, and buche tacos on Styrofoam platters amidst three different salsas, charro beans, and Tecate by the can, and feasted like kings of the desert. After eating, we made our way to the hot tub, where we told each other wild tales from our childhood and let our stomachs digest the tacos.

The next afternoon, Celia and I made our way across Airway Boulevard to the Region 19 Education Services Center, where we met with Rick Razo, our warm, white-bearded project partner and rockin’ director of the El Paso del Norte Youth Leadership Forum, and prepared for our OMOD El Paso Training of Trainers. In addition to Rick, we also trained three lovely graduate students from the University of New Mexico in Las Cruces, who will serve as our trainers for our first El Paso class: Christine, our writing instructor, Madeline, our public speaking instructor, and Gerri, our coach and general classroom assistant. They were all excited to be a part of our project and passionate about our ultimate goal: to train and support people with developmental disabilities statewide to write and share their stories at conferences and other events.

In this initial training, we guided the ladies through all of the necessary paperwork and read through our six-week class curriculum with them. Then, Rick acquainted us all with the facilities of the Education Services Center, a building with innumerable circuitous hallways and keycard-swipe locked doors, much like the Pentagon. As a wheelchair-user and tech nerd, I was most excited that each classroom was spacious and equipped with a computer, projector, screen, and booming speaker system as well as both a high-quality handheld and wireless lapel microphone. After the training, we reunited with Caleb, and soon we were off to nearby Dominic’s Italian Restaurant for yet another feast before heading to bed early.

Caleb and I awoke before dawn Saturday morning and rolled downstairs for a power breakfast of burritos and coffee. We rendezvoused with Celia and drove to the Volar Center for Independent Living, the location of our first OMOD class. Here, we met our fabulous group of seven participants (see the photo below), all active leaders in the El Paso del Norte Youth Leadership Forum. Being a former delegate and peer counselor from the Youth Leadership Forum in California, I was struck by how similar this El Paso group was to the group with which I had previously been involved. The participants here exhibited the same kind of compassion, camaraderie, and earnestness as those I knew in California. They were all eager for advocacy, change, and speaking up.

Pictured above is our rock star lineup of participants and instructors.
Back row, from left to right, is Paul, Jamie, Jesus, Madeline, Stephanie, Christine, Gerri, and Rick.
Front row, from left to right, is Alina, Roxana, Roxela, and myself.

Christine and Madeline led the participants through the usual first class activities, including an informal interview activity, a big group brainstorm using the phrases “Open Minds,” “Open Doors,” “Closed Minds,” and “Closed Doors” to generate a variety of topics for stories, and individual writing responses.

Roxela dictates her story to Gerri.

In the last half-hour of class, the participants shared their writings, a beautiful mixture of heartfelt stories covering a broad range of topics from “listening” and “diversity” to “opportunity” and “preparedness.” Of course, there was room for improvement in these self-advocate speakers – as there always is – but I know that I was not alone in my excitement to work with such an impassioned and enthusiastic group of participants.

Jesus shares his story with the class.

Then, Saturday night, Celia, Caleb, and I drove out through the desert to eat at the legendary Cattleman’s Steakhouse at Indian Cliffs Ranch. While waiting for a table, we wandered around the ranch in search of an appropriate backdrop for a group selfie, but instead we found a multitude of ranch animals, including rabbits, peacocks, goats, longhorns, bison, horses, llamas, an ostrich, and a donkey.




After viewing the photographic evidence, Caleb insisted that my true spirit animal is a donkey. Though I’m not sure I agree outright with his statement, I can say that I felt an uncanny closeness with the donkey; I seemed to understand his sadness as well as he understood my own.

And of course, here is the donkey and I.
Do you think we're connected in some deep, cosmic way?

Our wandering came to an end when my name was announced over a loudspeaker indicating that our table was ready, and I raced back to secure it. We then enjoyed a hearty dinner of steak and bottomless pineapple coleslaw, ranch beans, and rolls. For a moment, I looked contentedly over the table full of food and felt completely at peace with the world. There’s nothing quite like a good, hearty meal to make everything feel all right. I know Caleb and Celia must have felt the same.

As Celia drove us back to the hotel, Caleb and I drifted to the border of consciousness, satiated and calm. I gazed through the windshield at the city lights ahead and wondered where El Paso ended and Ciudad Juarez began. Celia told me that Juarez glowed blue because the streetlamps there were neon and that wherever I could see a blue glow, I would be looking at Juarez; almost everything else would be El Paso. I tried hard to see the difference, and I’m not sure I did, but I do remember thinking about how magical and interconnected everything seemed to be. I imagined the future of our El Paso program, the stories that our self-advocates would write, the lessons they would learn and the lessons they would share, the ways they might change or grow as I have grown through my own involvement in the program. I didn’t know exactly what the future held, but I was excited for it.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more OMOD project updates at