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ARTreach: Connecting the community
Within My Reach - programs serving children and adults with special needs

by Ella Hearrean

Twenty-three-year-old Lauren twirls her paintbrush across a canvas. Nonverbal for most of her life, she mutely transforms a white canvas into vibrant greens and fiery reds. “We’ve tried an iPad and an iPod, but she only responds to painting,” says Donna Fruge, founder and executive director of The Summerhouse, a nonprofit organization that transitions students with intellectual disabilities from high school into adult life. “For her, painting is like being able to give a speech.”

The Summerhouse supports the development of students like Lauren by collaborating with ARTreach, a nonprofit organization that is celebrating its 10th anniversary of partnering with social service agencies to provide art-related programs to the underserved including children and adults with special needs.
ARTreach provides monthly vocational art workshops to students at The Summerhouse; today, the classmates are on a field trip at the inner city Houston ARTreach studio to explore urban arts such as graffiti art and hip hop.

ARTreach Artist in Residence Mark DeLeon retells the origins of graffiti in 1980s New York as students and volunteers paint canvases created from the covers of discarded books. He says, “These books are like our lives. The chapters inside tell our story; we create on the outside what we’re feeling on the inside.” When they are done, DeLeon peels away stencils to reveal black graffiti etched into the paintings. The Summerhouse students and volunteers react with surprised laughter, loud squeals, and excited claps. “Now I’m a part of your life like you’re a part of my life,” he says.

Executive Director Terri Bieber attributes the success of ARTreach to its volunteers. “An ARTreach volunteer appreciates art and working with people. They participates in the art-making process along with the child; volunteers and students go on the art journey together. ARTreach is as much about sharing art as it is about sharing time with others.” Bieber says both the child and the volunteer benefit. “They both learn about art and learn from each other along the way. There’s a growing relationship that keeps everyone coming back for more.”

Fruge sees obvious benefits from ARTreach’s approach. “They provide the quality instruction and the freedom for my students to learn, experience success, and feel pride in themselves. Our organizations go back and forth in developing best practices benefitting students with special needs.”

Fruge has a personal interest in developing best practices for the young adults at The Summerhouse: her daughter, Summer, is one of her students. “We have the same hopes and dreams for her as we do for our other children,” Fruge says of her daughter, who contracted bacterial meningitis at nine weeks old and defied odds of survival. When Summer faced limited options after high school, Fruge created a plan that would allow Summer to remain self-directed and purposeful. The mom of three left a 21-year career as a real estate appraiser and created The Summerhouse in 2012.

The Summerhouse reinforces daily living skills, develops students’ social, emotional, and physical growth, and relies on ARTreach to provide enrichment and vocational art training. “Our students may not be able to hold a traditional job, but they can still connect to the community, contribute to society, and feel valuable,” says Fruge.

The students’ successes are evident. Summer owns a paper shredding business; she and her friends reuse the shreds to create jewelry and art in their design studio to sell at farmers’ markets. Her classmate, Lauren, displays and sells her paintings in art cafes. The money they earn goes toward “Fun Friday” outings like this ARTreach workshop.

Bieber works persistently to raise awareness about the benefits of art for underserved populations. “This works,” she says of teaching children to use art as a tool for self-expression. “We want social service agencies and school districts to recognize this opportunity and take advantage of these programs. ARTreach will deliver high quality art programs to them. Or a group can take field trips to or plan events at the ARTreach studio in the Third Ward after school and on weekends to learn dance, art, and music.

The Texas Commission on the Arts provides grants that fund these ARTreach programs for at-risk and special needs populations, low income families, and senior citizens. ARTreach also relies on donations from the community: individuals, churches, charity groups, foundations, businesses, corporations.

While their canvases dry, the students and volunteers form a circle around ARTreach Regional Program Director Chris Gamez, who teaches them hip hop moves. Clad in a loose sweatshirt, jeans, and a backwards hat, Gamez spins and jumps to the delight of the novices. They take turns dancing, and the graffiti-painted room swells with the sounds of R&B tunes, clapping, and laughter. “Go Summer! Go Summer!” they chant, as the 22-year-old twists and writhes to the beat, grinning without inhibition. 

Gamez ends the lesson by showing them how to hold a traditional hip hop B-Boy pose. “A B-Boy stance tells people that whatever life brings our way, we’re always ready to tackle it,” he says. “Are you ready to tackle life? Give me the B-Boy stance! They all freeze, heads cocked confidently, arms crossed, legs widely planted, chins up, eyes fixed ahead. “What!” they yell in unison.

They’re ready.

To donate to or volunteer for ARTreach, go to

Ella Hearrean of Stellar Communications is a Houston-based writer and editor.

ARTreach is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that provides mentoring and art-related programs to a growing population of children at risk, children and adults with special needs, the elderly and others in need.