GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — In a small, second floor lobby, Dottie Wiersma sits with her legs crossed reading a book. Periodically, she glances toward the giant windows and watches the group on the other side. Among that handful of people is her 54-year-old son Sherman. He’s learning the flamenco.
“He has not had a great deal of opportunity in the school system. I think with his age, we come to the party a little late,” Dottie Wiersma said. “Just to have the opportunity for him to do something, not as passive as CDs and concerts, but actively to nurture that little germ of interest in music within him, in a space that is totally nurturing and validating.”
Sherman Wiersma’s favorite part of the dance, he says, is the ribbons.
He’s not overly verbal about it. He has Down syndrome and according to his mom is not the most boisterous or flamboyant person in the world, but when he’s taking part in classes at the nonprofit Artists Creating Together, his ability to express himself grows.
“It’s given me this time where he can be with somebody other than mom for an activity and where we can talk about and enjoy something like this together,” Dottie Wiersma said. “The gardening class was wonderful because he used to, when we lived out more in the country, pull weeds and do all kinds of gardening.”
For three and a half decades, ACT has given people of all ages and all abilities the chance to learn and to grow. The Grand Rapids nonprofit has cultivated an environment that is rich and rewarding for anyone with a disability to find their inner creative through a growing list of programs. Art, singing, dancing, cooking, or gardening, the list is always evolving.
“I hope this, feels like their home away from home,” ACT executive director Angela Steele said. “We try to really empower our students to take the lead on their art and to have some decision-making on what sort of arts they want to do.”
During her eight years as executive director, the organization has grown from a small staff with adult programming and special education classrooms to a wide-reaching, all-encompassing and inclusive environment. ACT is in hospitals, pediatric floors. It has a creative mobile cube that houses 30 students. It is in its second year at a new facility on the northwest side of Grand Rapids that allows it to have multiple classes going at the same time and be out on the rooftop deck.
“A lot of our students are here throughout the week, either with their classroom or as individuals,” Steele said about the new facility. “They’re not only participating in classes, whether those be performing or visual, but they’re also making lifelong relationships, they’re getting out in the community to share their art, to do art exhibits, to do performances and share some of their voice.”
Her group’s call to action is community. It hires and pays local artists to help teach in their area of expertise. ACT is always looking for volunteers or donated supplies. But most importantly, Steele says, she wants West Michigan to think of ACT as an opportunity for someone who otherwise may have never known that chance existed.
“We want more people to know about ACT,” Steele said. “We want people to meet someone with a disability within their neighborhood or within their school and automatically think of ACT and think, ‘Hey, have you checked this out?’ Because this is a really safe environment for learning and growing together, and it’s really for anyone.”
Learn more about how to get involved with ACT here.