A Community of Discovery for Adults with Special Needs
By Sonia Duggan
Christmas comes just once a year, but for the students at Coventry Reserve their workshop is a Creative Skills Center where they have been busy creating one-of-a-kind pieces for months in anticipation of the season. These individuals, all adults with disabilities, are as unique as the pieces they create.
Through creative teamwork, beautiful pottery is created at the facility located at 2004 Parker Rd. in St. Paul. Adults with physical and cognitive needs who can no longer attend school programs learn creative skills, and as a result, sensory input is aided
by doing the pottery. Today, Coventry’s pottery is now recognized all over Texas thanks
to the efforts, and vision, of Executive Director, President and Co-founder Darlene Blakey. “Selling pottery was the perfect solution and it tells the Coventry story,” she said.
Twenty to 25 percent of the annual budget is supported through the sale of pottery. It helps fund and promote awareness of the nonprofit, something Blakey is thankful for since she prefers to limit the fundraising efforts. They sell the pottery in their gift shop, at the Wylie Art Gallery and in a booth at the Wylie Arts Festival in December.
Coventry students can begin the program as early as 18 though many begin after they leave high school at age 22. The average age of a Coventry participant is 35.
There is a tuition charge for the participants to ensure the families are invested in the program. The full cost of the program is subsidized through individual and community donations, tuition and pottery sales. Much like any other school, Coventry has a curriculum. They offer two 5-month sessions per year. “We operate on a schedule that is reminiscent of college,” Blakey said. “We have semesters and spring and fall break.”
The students work in different stations throughout the day to keep monotony to a minimum and keep attention and participation high. The program has activities in the Creative Skills and Brain-Building Stations, art and horticulture and light
physical exercise. In addition, they experience a 45-minute F.O.C.U.S. Time daily designed to foster opportunities to connect, understand and support.
A typical day at Coventry kicks off with the F.O.C.U.S. teaching time. The foundational concept is based on the Coventry Motto: “We strive to move our participants from self-focus to others focused, so they can participate in the world around them in a more positive, Christ-centered way.”
Daily attendance is about 20-27 students that are divided into three smaller groups. Volunteers and staff stand in the morning circle with them. “We start with our morning rally as they are coming in. I love to lead that,” Blakey said. “That is where we see the most social growth. We do riddles where they have to think, work on attitude adjustments, and we get them to notice things about other people.”
One of Blakey’s pet peeves is spoiled brats. “We don’t like brats. Not even special needs brats, so we work a lot on manners,” she said. In addition, the students work not just on receiving, but giving back. “We teach them to share. That’s our goal here – to inspire others,” she said. “We want to inspire others to care for our guys in their communities.”
American Sign Language is another F.O.C.U.S. time skill that is taught and practiced.
“We have found that by adding music and drama, signing becomes even easier and more enjoyable to learn.” During certain times of the year, a large group of “Signing Stars” will perform as special guests at various churches within the community. This gives exposure to the program and the participants learn to give back. Sometimes smaller groups “sign and shine” at annual events such as the Coventry Golf Tournament and Christmas Open House.
The students transition in different centers throughout the day. The goal of the Creative Skills department is to build skills and confidence through consistent instruction, encouragement, expectation and reinforcement of each participant’s abilities. The session gives students the opportunity to experience a creative outlet by making handcrafted pottery and specialty ceramics with the aid of a teachers and volunteers.
The pottery has come a long way since the program began and each piece is truly a team effort. In the clay station they shape and pattern the pottery from clay slabs, then glaze the bisque pieces at the Glazing Station. All broken pieces are recycled and mixed again in a pugmill so nothing is wasted.
George Lowke oversees the kiln room. He started as a volunteer and was later hired when Darlene saw he was quick at learning the pottery process and had potential for the kiln room job with consistent and supported supervision. He was sent to specialized training in kiln operation and maintenance. Ten years later he keeps the pottery process running smooth. “We value George!” Blakey said.”
New glazing, embossing and painting techniques decorate a great deal of the pottery. “We’re always doing something different because it feeds their spirit,” Blakey said. In addition, the students have learned patterns and what it means to have negative space in artwork. Some of the pieces are now framed in shadow boxes. “Our art class is carrying over to our pottery,” she said. “Now we have them painting on the pottery. Art teachers teach them on clay, someone else made the bowl, then they patterned and completed it,” she said.
The students that participate in art theory and horticulture classes are pulled out of their regular sessions, yet still attend the rest of the programs. Blakey hopes eventually art will be a four-day program.
“We wanted an art teacher that wouldn’t just give them a paper,” Blakey said. “We need guided instructions and freedom and creativity happens within that guided instructions.” Following the teacher’s instructions, beautiful drawings are often created. Some artwork is made into notecards or prints to sell in the shop. One day the teacher worked on lines with the students, then showed them how they were going to create a feather from their lines. “That’s how she teaches them art,” Blakey said. “They hear it, they say it and they do it.”
Three years ago, Coventry expanded and added a Horticulture Program. Farmers Electric provided a covered planting area on the side of the building and greenhouses are planned for the near future. Coventry hired an A&M graduate who re-wrote the curriculum for special needs participants using A&M practicality. Now they teach a junior Master Gardeners program where they learn the basic concepts of plant development, soil and water, ecology and environment, insects and diseases, and landscaping.
In addition, participants plant, maintain and then harvest in keyhole gardens. The keyhole gardens sit directly in front of the building and were donated through a grant by Wylie’s East Fork Rotary Club. When students harvest the vegetables, they put them in baskets on the porch to sell. Sometimes the process involves cooking the produce, to experience the whole farm to table process. They also tend to butterfly gardens, composting bins, and a pecan orchard.
Horticulture students also experiment with a bit of art using shredded newspaper and concrete to make planters.
Exercise is essential for health and mobility, and everyday students participate in 30 minutes of light exercise. Twice a week they have a trained coach who teaches adaptive fitness through a program called Power to Move and on Wednesdays and Thursdays after lunch they practice yoga.
Exercising the brain is equally as important, and the Brain Building Center helps the students do just that. Jody Maurer, a brain building instructor, works with students utilizing a variety of tools and activities to ensure the brain is being worked through the sensory pathways such as hearing, vision and balance. One tool is a platform vestibular swing that helps with auditory processing by enabling the sense of balance and spatial orientation. John, a program participant, enthusiastically practices Bal-A-Vis-X (balance/auditory/vision exercises) standing on a wobble board, alternating his hands, all the while tracking a ball bounced his way.
In another room, Carmen Bailey, also a brain building instructor, works with Blakey’s 47-year-old son Anthony as he draws “lazy 8’s,” an exercise to improve cross laterality and strengthen his right hand. There are 21 different therapeutic activities for students in this area. Each person is evaluated to see which ones they need more. There are desks and touch screen computers for reading and memory programs, and there is a Wii device to use to work on vestibular/core muscles.
“All of the guys are not going to be able to do jobs.” We prepare them to know consistency of order. That’s why we use a metronome in the brain building center,” Blakey said. “It helps in a job or just doing chores at the house. Rhythm, order and sequencing is used throughout all their programs. “They see, they do, they hear,” she said.
In the beginning
Blakey’s son started transitioning from Wylie High school in 1991 and he graduated in two years later at age 22. “I looked and looked and didn’t find a thing,” she said. The options for people like Anthony were limited to workshops in industrial areas. Blakey was working in interior design at the time and decided she had to stay home and take care of Anthony. “I was not going to put him somewhere that I felt was not safe or cheerful,” she said.
One day she was serving on jury duty and met Neil Sperry. They were talking about education since Sperry’s wife was serving on McKinney school board at the time. Blakey told him she was looking for a place for her special needs son. Sperry said he’d send her an article about a school she should check out.
“I didn’t know who I was talking to,” she said. “He sent me a magazine. I didn’t know it was HIS magazine!” The article was about Brookwood, a God-centered Community for disabled adults west of Houston. Sperry had visited the community to check out their greenhouses. Blakey and friends Gina and Barry Barnett accompanied her on a visit to the school, where she saw the “citizens were treated with dignity and respect and their faces reflected self-confidence and happiness.”
Blakey realized it would be a great fit, but the location was totally unrealistic for their family. Thankfully, the founder, Yvonne Streit, agreed to mentor her through the process. Barry wrote a check to get Blakey started. “It was just money, but I needed a plan,” she said. Streit advised her to start the program in her house and take it slow due to the fact she had three small children and Anthony to care for. Blakey developed the program that is now called Coventry Reserve with two girls and Anthony ½ day a week, along with Gina as her first volunteer.
Eventually participation outgrew the home location and Coventry was held in a local church for a brief period. In 2005, the program moved to its current location in St. Paul. Coventry purchased the original building in 2009. In 2014 the Life Enrichment Center, a 4,300 square foot building was added including a gymnasium, acting stage and patio. Currently, there are 37 families who participate in the two, three or four-day program. Thirty-five percent of the participants have intellectual development disabilities (IDD), about 24 percent have Down Syndrome, and 19 percent are on the Autism Spectrum. “We don’t really worry about labels, but it does help sometimes to understand the challenges,” she said.
Parent/volunteer Carol Tipton found Coventry 11 years ago while working out one day. Her son Zach had graduated in 2004 and she was still searching for a place for him to go that was not cold and impersonal. “My instructor walked over and grabbed a piece of pottery with the Coventry brochure in it,” she said. “When I finished exercising I went home and called Darlene.” One week later they were enrolled. “Zach loved the program and each day didn’t want to leave. He misses it when we’re not here,” she said. “I could tell a difference in his social skills and coordination.”
Volunteering and Helping Out
Also helping with expenses are the volunteers who give their time to assist with daily tasks in the program. Currently there are 25 program volunteers Monday through Thursday per session as well as volunteers in product, maintenance and auxiliary garden club. There are also opportunities for groups to volunteer.
Blakey’s Administrative Assistant Margretha Girvin discovered Coventry in 2011. She had a great niece that was diagnosed developmentally delayed and was looking for something to do when she found the snowflake pottery at the Wylie Arts Fest. She liked the story behind the pottery so she started as a product volunteer. “When I first started volunteering I didn’t have any experience with special needs at all,” she said. As a product volunteer she could sit and listen. “I love that they have the entry into that,” she said.
According to Blakey, the staff/volunteer-to-participant ratio is about one to three, but they are still in need of volunteers in nearly every aspect of the program. They currently have 11 staff members (including Blakey) and two are part-time. The next volunteer training date is Thursday, January 24 from 8:45 a.m. -2:45 p.m. and lunch is provided. No experience is necessary. “We will train you,” Blakey said.
Since the beginning, Coventry has been helping adults with special needs live life to the fullest.
Future plans include respite programming and expanding to a five-day a week program and to explore residential opportunities for the students.
“We have room for more and we’d love to serve.”