Friday, October 24, 2014

Get to know our Executive Director, Celia Hughes!

Hello everyone.  I’m Celia Hughes, Executive Director of VSA Texas. I am happy to introduce myself and look forward to interacting with you in-person, on-line and in the cloud.   So, here’s a little information about me.  As an artist and an advocate, I wasn’t on the front lines of the disability movement in the 70’s and 80’s, but I was working in the trenches, and since a very young age, have dedicated my life to working alongside people with disabilities to improve quality of life and remove barriers to success.

My first summer at Clover Patch Camp! That's me in the middle of the back row.

I started out by creating the arts and crafts program at Clover Patch Camp, run by Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital in Schenectady, NY. Clover Patch was the first camp of its kind in upstate New York, and my early experiences there planted the seed of realization of what was happening then and what could be possible in the lives of people with disabilities.

Armed with a degree in Speech Pathology and a dream to find a life in the arts, I set out. Through my work in theater, television, film, art galleries, catering, school classrooms and youth leadership organizations at local, state and national levels, I have been able to blend my passion for the arts and my commitment to civil rights. In 1999, the door to opportunity opened and I walked through to assume the leadership position at VSA Texas.

VSA was founded 40 years ago by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and was known for many years as Very Special Arts.  Ambassador Smith’s vision was to bring the reformative power of the arts to people who, for no fault of their own, were locked away in institutions or hidden behind closed doors. Thankfully, now, much of that has changed.

But the work of VSA Texas continues to recognize that throughout the ages, artists, scientists, mathematicians – people with disabilities – have led the way toward a better world.  As President Kennedy once reminded us, “Art calls forth creative genius from every sector of society, disregarding race, religion, wealth or color” and I would now add, disability. This is the mission of VSA Texas: to bring everyone into the universal experience of the arts through employment, education, participation, and just plain fun!

On October 21, at the 2014 Lex Frieden Employment Awards ceremony in Dallas, I was awarded The Governor’s Trophy by the Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities. The Governor’s Trophy is awarded to the person who has achieved the highest success in enhancing the empowerment and employment of Texans with disabilities. The Governor's Trophy recognizes long-term commitment and outstanding efforts at both the community and state level. It is an amazing honor to be recognized by your peers for the work that you do. One could get a little complacent. But don’t worry. It won’t stop me from continuing to work every day to build inclusive, arts-inspired communities, where people with and without disabilities envision, create, dance, play and sing their stories, out loud and proud!

I hope you will join me, and the Board and staff of VSA Texas, on this unique and transformative journey.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Big Brother OMOD Returns to El Paso

Good evening ardent followers of VSA Texas' blog! It's Eric, your friendly OMOD project coordinator and connoisseur of El Paso's finest tacos. I have another tale to tell you of the Sun City:

After launching our OMOD program in El Paso the last weekend of August, I observed the next four class meetings from the comfort of my home in Austin through the modern magic of FaceTime, a video calling application, courtesy of Apple, that enables Mac users to video call other Mac users – or users of iPads, iPhones, or iPods – through built-in FaceTime cameras and Wi-Fi connections. For me, this meant every Saturday morning I would cozy up to my MacBook Pro laptop at my dining room table with a cup of coffee and regrettable slices of leftover pizza, await the video call from our writing and speaking coach, Gerri, and then observe the three-hour class like the next episode of an action-packed miniseries. My face would appear on the screen of Gerri's MacBook Pro resting on a table in the corner of the Region 19 Education Service Center conference room, where the OMOD class was held.

Though I like to think my facial expressions were a tad less scornful and intimidating, I still imagine I must have appeared somewhat like 1984’s Big Brother: lurking quietly in the corner, taking fastidious notes. But overall, I found my FaceTime observation to be a wonderful experience of watching the participants morph and grow over the course of the six-week session and seeing how the trainers interpreted our curriculum and modified it to suit the new environment and the new group of participants. More importantly, FaceTime gave me the opportunity to be present, to note the specific problems and successes, and to give the trainers instant feedback both during and after each class.

I returned to El Paso with Caleb, my trusty travel attendant and also a passionate connoisseur of tacos, for the final class and showcase on Saturday, October 4th. We met our project partner, Rick, our trainers, Christine, Madeline, and Gerri, and our newly trained self-advocate speakers at the Transitions to the Future Conference for Parents at the Region 19 Head Start Center, where the showcase was held as one of the conference’s breakout sessions. The showcase room filled up quickly, and soon our speakers were presenting their stories to an audience of more than 60 people.

Our speakers shared a variety of stories on themes ranging from education, adventure, and friendship, to self-discovery, romance, and the importance of listening. Every story was well received and garnered a wave of applause from the audience.

Alina shares her story about how she dealt with an unwanted crush.

Paul talks about his experiences in Junior ROTC.

Jesus shares his story about skydiving.

After the showcase, I spoke with the mother of a young son with autism who told me how much the stories moved her and made her feel more confident about her son’s future. Hearing that really reinforced in me the importance of our project: writing and sharing stories about the common hopes, dreams, successes, and struggles of people with disabilities allows people without disabilities to see how alike we all are and also gives hope and strength to other people with disabilities and to family members of people with disabilities who may still be trying to find their way.

The next stop for our El Paso self-advocate speakers will be the 2014 “Our Lives” Disabilities Conference and Service Providers Expo, sponsored by the Volar Center for Independent Living, which will be held Thursday, October 30th, from 8am-5pm at the Camino Real Hotel (101 South El Paso Street, El Paso, TX 79901). Stay tuned for updates at

And last but not least, take a look at these incredible tacos from the Rainbow Fountain!

Caleb helps me arrange my tacos for proper consumption.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Have you heard of Zach Bilbo yet? You Will!

Have you heard of Zach Bilbo yet? You will!

Zach Bilbo is a 15-year-old boy who attended our two-week-long animation internship this summer.   With dreams of someday making a career in animation, Zach submitted an extensive application for the internship complete with character, storyboards, and comics.  We knew that he would really benefit from our teachers, and invited him to join us.

During the two-week internship, although Zach was somewhat reserved, he was incredibly hardworking and approached every project with thoughtfulness and creativity.  He excelled in the many different domains of animation, including simple flipbook animation, stop-motion, and Claymation.  Many of the volunteers had little experience with the different types of techniques, so Zach proved to be a great asset in providing assistance and support for the less experienced interns.  Zach’s final animation reel was both innovative and humorous, combining the new skills he learned during the internship with his previously developed characters

So, when Project Coordinator of our Opening Minds, Opening Doors program, Eric Clow, and our Artworks Director April Sullivan wanted to create a character to become the “face” of OMOD and reflect the spirit of the program on different documents, we immediately thought of Zach.   Zach took the opportunity and ran with it, designing a vast array of new and creative characters from which we could choose.  We were so pleased with his submissions and decided that we couldn’t pick just one; hence the birth of “Maudie” and “Opie!” (Named by Zach, of course). 


We’ve now hired Zach to draw these characters in a variety of poses and situations to go along with different programs, and couldn’t be more pleased with what he’s come up with.   Both of these characters have distinct personalities and add a whole new dimension to the OMOD program.  We're so happy to have Zach's help with this project, and hopefully contribute to his first steps on the way to making a career in animation a reality.  Congratulations Zach! You're awesome!

What do you think of Zach’s work? What should Maudie and Opie be doing next? Let us know in the comments!