Why we help: Called to help artists with disabilities

Jessie Francis

I came to the area to study human services at a local private college, not exactly knowing what I would do with that, but it was a field I could see myself in. I ended up getting an internship one summer for an agency that employed workers to help an adult with disabilities. My job was with an artist with autism, and I helped him with getting to and setting up at his locations to draw. Later, we would go back to his house, and he would paint. I helped him to get things framed and found places in the community that would show and sell his work. I also helped him with his social skills, and emotion and behavior management out in the community.

When the summer was over and it was time to go back to school and end my internship, I found myself really feeling very called back to the work I was doing. I ended up asking to be rehired and was this time placed with a fun-loving guy who had Down syndrome. I took him to his retail job and helped him there, and we also spent time doing things he needed and wanted to do, like walk for exercise or go visit his friends. One of his weekly outings was at a nonprofit arts program for adults with disabilities. I absolutely loved that day of the week when we would go to his art classes. I so enjoyed getting to know all the artists there and became friends with them and the staff. Eventually, I was offered a job there. That place closed down, and the staff who remained started Open Hearts Art Center.

That was almost 17 years ago now, and what motivates me has shifted throughout the years. Lately, I am motivated to see how much we can spread their work further into the awareness of others. People are so delighted with it once they discover it. The work hanging in your house often has a story, and if you get to actually meet the artist, the work becomes gold to you. I love that about what we do.

The greatest hurdle we are facing lately is sustaining our workforce. There are a lot of jobs in the area that are offering more than we can to our direct-care workers who are also amazing artists themselves and just top-notch people. It isn’t hard to love your job here, but it is hard to afford living in this city, and unfortunately that has to be prioritized for some people sometimes, and we have lost staff that we miss dearly.

— Jessie Francis
Co-founder and co-executive director
Open Hearts Art Center


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