Thursday, June 29, 2017

Introducing... OMOD's New Website!

Dear friends and devoted blog readers,

I am excited to announce that our new OMOD website is now live (thanks to a lot of hard work by our OMOD team, who spent countless hours developing and revising the downloadable resources, and Trisummit Solutions, the team of WordPress experts who built and designed the site)! I would like to take you for a little tour around the site, but I encourage you to take your own self-guided tour when you have the time.

First we have our homepage (see below):

Note the new OMOD logo. It's pretty snazzy, so you can assume I had little to do with it :)

Here you can get a little taste of what all you will find on the site and watch a highlights reel from our 2015 class showcase in Austin. Scroll down to find our upcoming events and most recent blog posts.

At the top of every page, including the homepage, you can access buttons which will take you to nealy any page on the site, including the About You (this page's button doubles as a drop-down menu with links to resources for trainers, speakers, and conference organizers), Events, About Us, News, and Contact Us pages.

Also, at the left side of every page, about halfway down, you will find two small, gray square buttons (see below); these will allow you to switch to high contrast or increase the size of the text on the website.

Buttons to adjust the contrast and font size

You can find our biggest downloadable (and free!) resources on the Trainers page (below): our complete 139-page curriculum in English and Spanish along with guides for how to draft and submit conference presentation proposals, support and prepare speakers with disabilities for conferences, and recruit participants, volunteers, and instructors for an OMOD class. Although these resources are downloadable as PDFs on our site, we can also send you the materials in a Word document format, if you use a screen reader or some other assistive technology that does not work well with PDFs. Just shoot us an email, and we'll get you the materials you need.

The long list of PDF resources available for download on the Trainers page

On the Speakers page, you can read more about the benefits of joining the OMOD program, find out if we have our next six-week class scheduled, and sign up for our email list.

If you are a conference host seeking speakers for your next conference, check out our Conference Organizers page. You'll find a fillable form on that page where you can tell us about your conference, if you want a solo speaker or ensemble presentation, and what topic you'd like us to present on.

Regardless of your specific role, you can stay in the know by following our News page. Each new blog post gets added to this page automatically.

And that brings us to the end of our tour! I hope you will continue to explore the wonderful world of OMOD and join our email list so you never miss an update!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Keeping Your Brain Healthy in the 21st Century

Hello Friends,

A few weeks ago I told you about a new initiative of VSA Texas involving older adults and art. We are really excited about everything that has been happening with Mobile Art and the new people we are serving. We know the arts have restorative powers, and provide opportunities for expressing your creativity, contemplative thinking, relationship building, and just plain fun!

In early June, I had the pleasure of attending a Dementia & Museums Symposium at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. I’ll admit it. I am kind of a conference geek. Especially when I have the opportunity to meet people who are passionate and committed to their cause. And yes, I was surrounded by museum staff from across the country who are running great programs for folks with early memory loss, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.  I learned that, “it’s about living in the moment and going on a journey, together” (thank you Jane Tygesson). I learned that people are care partners, not care givers. What a respectful way to refer to people who may have been together for decades, and are still together, just in a different way.

A large face fills the canvas. White hair encircles the top of the head, and a non-smiling face peers out at the viewer. Flecks of gold paint cover portions of the face which is dominated by a large nose and bright red lips.
Ebony G. Patterson, Untitled (Blingas II from the series Gangstas for Life) 2008

Damon McLeese, a colleague and friend who runs Access Gallery in Denver, was the keynote speaker. He provided a great foundation for the next three days as he explained how he works with young people with disabilities through his gallery programming. However, in the past year, he has expanded his programs to offer “Granny Does Graffiti,” a mural project that matches older adults with dementia with a Denver-based graffiti artist – so cool! And what we can learn about each other when given a way in through art. Staff of the care center where these adults stay are learning new things about the former lives of their clients, thereby opening a window into new ways of helping and being together.

Duke University has a Medical School conducting some groundbreaking research into Alzheimer’s. On the last morning, Dr. Kathleen Welsh-Bohmer, PhD and Director of the Joseph and Kathleen Bryan Alzheimer’s Center at Duke shared some latest statistics on the disease. She laid out seven steps for people to follow to help reduce the risk of developing early memory loss or dementia. These steps are not earth-shattering, but worth repeating.

At the Sarah P Duke Gardens, a circle of large human like forms constructed from branches cut from trees on the campus, sits in the middle of a large field.
Patrick Dougherty, The Big Easy 2017

Step 1. Change your mindset. Ageism is rampant in our society. Many older adults are responsible for maintaining their health and continuing to contribute to society. Expect more from yourself than others may expect. Here is another way to think about changing your mindset about growing older and living longer: disability is something that you are living with; disease is something that you are dying from; Alzheimer’s is just an accelerated process of what we will all eventually go through.

Step 2. Treat what can be treated. Curb your smoking and alcohol habits. Manage your medical conditions. Heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, thyroid disease, sleep disorders, arthritis, anxiety, and depression can all be contributing factors to changes in the brain.

Step 3. Get physically active. Aerobic, resistance training, daily 15-20 minute walks. These are all good. And mix it up a bit with gardening, raking leaves, or taking the stairs.

I took Kathleen’s advice and walked around the Duke campus after her talk. A long stone building with arches and dormer windows houses the Duke Divinity School.

Step 4. Watch what you eat. And that doesn’t mean looking at yourself in the mirror. A Mediterranean diet is really good for you. Limit your sugar and salt intake. Eat carrots, tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries, and salmon.

Step 5. Work your brain. Engage in new ways of thinking. Do ART! Studies have shown that art activities – visual, music, dancing, theater – stimulate the brain and help to reduce risk. A small study from Newcastle on Tyne in England broke individuals into three groups: one group did puzzles, one went on walks, the third took art classes. You won’t be surprised to learn the art class participants reported the highest level of satisfaction and continued to participate after the study was concluded. What did the study reveal? Social engagement and a challenging, new activity resulted in a sense of mastery and accomplishment.

Step 6. Stress reduction and caring for your emotional health. SLEEP. Know how many hours of sleep you need per day and try to maintain it. Anywhere between 6.5 and 9.5 is considered within the range. Also social engagement, outdoor activities, pet therapy – I have cats. It works – meditation, yoga. You don’t have to do all of these things. Just try one. And, of course, sleep.

Lotus flowers in the gardens open to the warm spring sun.

Step 7. Be part of the solution. This one comes directly from Dr. Welse-Bohmer. Participate in research to help add to the body of knowledge being tested and shared.

The summer program of Mobile Art is with older adults and their care partners at home. In partnership with Family Eldercare, we will deliver art supplies and instructions to folks who no longer leave their homes and then work with them over the phone to complete six diverse art projects. Theresa Zelazny, founder of Mobile Art, developed the lessons and we look forward to getting to know our newest friends. Stay tuned!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

And Yet We Rise

We are happy to feature our friend and Lion & Pirate regular David Borden in this week's blog. David recently published And Yet We Rise, a truly fantastic graphic novel that tackles the complex, difficult subject matter of life with significant disabilities and caregiving with frankness, humor, and sincerity – something frequently lacking in much of the existing literature on these topics. (Click here for a more detailed review of the book by our own April Sullivan). We were thrilled to host David's book release party at our Lion & Pirate open mic and glad to hear a little more about the origins of his book:

I sat on the sofa, window blinds drawn with Savannah in my arms. She was so small, so beautiful. I was so tired. Dead tired. I could barely function. I was depressed, confused, and hungry for help or advice of any kind. Why wouldn’t she eat? Why wouldn’t she sleep? Why wouldn’t she stop screaming for hours… days at a time? I knew she had a significant brain injury because I’d seen the MRI images. I knew she had out-of-control seizures without seeing them etched by an EEG because she jittered and clenched more often than I could count.

David reading to Savannah

I knew the clinical side of the equation. The doctors had described it, labelled it, and examined it with excruciating detail. What I didn’t know was the human side. I hadn’t met other parents yet. We tried support groups, but neither my wife nor myself had the kind of personality that does well in a support group, so we remained isolated.

I looked for books, but the books people recommended, the best-sellers, so to speak, about disability, dealt with autism, Down syndrome, degenerative diseases, or mental illness. We found a few good books, but they often played it too safe, staying overly positive and inspirational. So, in the back of my mind, a seed was planted. I would write the book I wanted—surely someone else wants it too. I would write a book that dared to tackle the hard questions:

How do you care for someone year after year who won’t get better?

How do you care for yourself when you spend all your time and energy caring for someone else?

How do you deal with the conflicting emotions of grief and relief?

The whole family

I struggled with the manuscript for years. I couldn’t capture Savannah in prose. This vibrant, tenacious little girl who blossomed in her teen years stayed locked away from the reader because I found it impossible to create dialogue with her. Because she was non-verbal, I could only describe her reactions with smiles and eye movements so many times before these scenes became tedious. I abandoned the manuscript. The memoir had become just one more painful failure.

After Savannah passed away, just shy of her sixteenth birthday, her sister (eleven at the time), wrote me a touching letter. I didn’t know how to write her back. In my attempt to share her sister’s story, and my story, in an accessible way, I stumbled upon the idea of adding a visual element… make the book into a graphic novel (a long-form comic book that deals with serious subject matter). Suddenly, the book flowed and Savannah appeared in the pages.


And as far as I can tell, there is nothing like it out there. As one reader noted: “this book takes a difficult subject and translates it into an easy to understand format: a beautiful story with simple, compelling drawings. This is NOT a Hallmark Special. If you’re looking for fuzzy inspiration, this is not your book. This is the book that challenges you to think differently, but also envelopes you in love and compassion.”

I have been so pleased by the overwhelming response that I’ve received from the book. Fox 7 ran a feature story, I was interviewed on the One in a Million Baby pod-cast, and had a standing-room-only book release party at Malvern Books with my good friends of the Lion and Pirate.

Click here for more information on the book or to download the first chapter free.

David with graphic novels

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Creativity and Connection

This past Tuesday, Austin Playback Theatre was gracious enough to invite our organization to be the featured nonprofit for the June edition of their Tuesday Night Stories, a monthly improv performance series where all proceeds of each performance benefits a different local nonprofit organization. I didn’t know exactly what to expect from Austin Playback Theatre, but I must say I had a really good experience listening to other people’s stories and then seeing those stories expressed through improv.

For any of you unfamiliar with Austin Playback Theatre, it's an improvisational theatre in which the troupe elicits impressions and stories from the audience and then plays them back via improv. The troupe collaborates with the First Unitarian Universalist Church on Grover Street in Austin, who provides a space to perform at no charge so that all donations can go directly to the featured organization.

It was quite an intimate setting. A musician off to the side provided an ambience for each piece performed. Each actor stepped forward, gave their name and a short little story. Then the ensemble acted out the story, giving the audience a flavor of what the night’s improvisations would look like.

Improv actors portraying a story

A representative from VSA Texas gave a brief history of who we are, and then the emcee asked everyone in the audience to think of something we had recently experienced, basically a feel good moment, nothing elaborate, just something that we had connected to during the day. One story related an experience of rain, no power, eating pretzels and cheese, and playing scrabble by a lantern. The ensemble gave their interpretation of the story. It was amazing because I realized that through simply listening to the vignette, they were able to capture the feeling, the nuances of the experience, and relay it to the audience without much to do or say. It was a physical expression of the verbal story.

Improv of story

Several little moments from the audience were shared and played out in the same way, which primed us to share larger stories of how we connect with others through creativity, the theme for this month's performance. Soon, the members of the audience became storytellers: each would share a memory, and through answering brief questions from a moderator, a mini-play evolved.

Improv of story

The ensemble again caught the nuances with minimal activity. Stories were about sorrow and death, kittens, epiphanies of personal discovery, unity in a comical physical condition. The evening ended in a unified creative moment, and what happened was we got to know more about the other audience members. There were intense moments and funny moments, but no pressure to say anything, just observe or share. It was a very safe setting.

Relating a story to the improv facilitator

A little history about improv that I found interesting: unlike the foundations of professional acting, few historical records clearly pinpoint the official beginning of improvisation. To understand the importance of improvisation in a theatrical education, one must look at the first major occurrences of improvisation throughout history. There have been texts created at the moment of performance, referred to as improvisatory presentation, which was likely how the Atellan farce – improvised farces dealing with family problems or poking fun at historical and mythological figures – came to be so popular among Roman citizens. The Atellan farce became a literary genre in the first century B.C.E., as Roman authors began to write down the humorous and unplanned antics that occurred on stage, making the Atellan farce arguably the first well known improv troupe in recorded theatre history.

The improvisational theatre movement in America started in the late 1930s by Viola Spolin. In her twenties, she worked for the WPA as a social worker and “drama supervisor” at Hull House, Jane Addam’s famous settlement house in Chicago. Spolin used traditional children’s games and invented dozens of new games in workshops with immigrants to help empower them to become more spontaneous and less self-conscious and to build a supportive community (her games are collected in her seminal book “Improvisations for the Theater”). This little commentary is only a brief bit of trivia that offers us a window into the long history of improvisation.

Back to Austin Playback Theatre: their goal is to help nonprofits in Austin build community and awareness while raising money and building ties among Austinites who enjoy helping others & creating strong community connections! You can visit Austin Playback Theatre on the web for information on how to get your nonprofit featured in one of their shows.

Thanks again to Austin Playback Theatre for choosing VSA Texas as one of your featured nonprofits!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Celebrating the New Media Arts Semester Long Residency Program

A couple weeks ago I woke up and, as morning routines sometimes tend to go, my son had a meltdown. This one was a little different, though. He was really down on himself and started talking about how many shortcomings he had so I decided to keep him home with me that day. The hang up was that I had a showcase for Crockett High School to attend for work. The mama side of me knew these two did not coincide on accident.

The showcase at Crockett that day was the celebration of the 4 months of work by Ian Fry and his colleague Christina as part of our New Media Arts Semester Long Residency Program. They spent this semester teaching kids freshman aged and up about percussion and ended it with an ensemble performance where parents and teachers as well as other students could attend.

The child of a teacher, Ian told me that he started teaching 25 years ago when he was just 10 years old. He has a performance degree in Jazz and Classical Percussion and a Master of Arts and uses his skills to teach transitioning kids how to connect with music, specifically percussion. Ian is a staple in the VSA Texas family and seeing him interact with his students is something that is truly inspirational. I observed his ability to tune into what they needed individually and that is what a true teacher does. I got to chat with Ian today about his experience at Crockett and I want to share some of that interview with you today for our blog.

Percussion teacher Ian, dressed in black pants and a black shirt, uses a cowbell for rhythm as he warms up for the showcase with his students playing various types of drums.

Why is learning about music so important?
“It’s a shared human experience that we all literally resonate with and enjoy to some degree. It’s part of our life no matter what. I think that you don’t have to be objectively good at an instrument to benefit from it. Making those sounds and vibrations is so important to having a shared language.”

The first day vs. the last day:
“We didn’t know anyone, we had only met the teacher, but I remember them being receptive. It was really cool to walk in and have them be so welcoming. The students seemed so excited to be exposed to a drumming class, I don’t know if they ever had it before or not, but they were super excited, eager and focused. When we left that last day we were part of their family. It was great to, in those 4 short months, really connect with them and see them build their skills.”

What kind of things did you teach them?
“The program has an aspect of music literacy as well as learning rhythms and music by copying things. People tend to learn really well by repetition and in that repetition we ingrain those skills that we want to master. Each class, we ended up going over the same routine and that helped with the retention of knowledge. We learned a lot about Brazilian, Cuban and hip hop styles of percussion. It was all carnival rhythm.”

What was one of the most impactful things you saw through the semester?
“There were two guys that stood out to me. One who was extremely non-verbal and the other one just seemed like he was on the spectrum, verbal but sometimes not very active. What was amazing for us to witness was from the beginning one would take his medication during the day and when he got to the class he was very tired; he’d be napping a little bit but when everyone started playing he would snap out of it and start playing energetically. The other one was super non-verbal, barely ever played at all, but by the end he was playing and not only making noise but playing a really cool triplet pattern that sounded really nice.”

At VSA Texas, our mission is to make art accessible to everyone, no matter their abilities and our program at Crockett did not fall short of fulfilling that mission. I am so glad I got to expose my son to everyone that day because a bad morning was made better by just being there and that is a priceless experience. I can’t wait to see how many more minds we reach by continuing to do what we do!