The A+ Art Club works to connect St. Olaf and Carleton volunteers with A+ club members on the autism spectrum through art projects.
The program was started by Laura Goodwin and Professor of Art and Art History Meg Ojala as an experiment to see if arts and crafts could break down barriers and help students on the autism spectrum work past issues in a more unconventional way. During its first year, the club turned out to be a huge success. Since then, it has continued to work on new ways to continue its objectives, including improvisation activities and a recent musical.
On a typical night, volunteers arrive and pair up with club members one-on-one, which allows strong relationships to form. Everyone then participates in a team building activity, which helps facilitate trust between the members, while providing a way for members to relax and enjoy themselves. Guest artists then come in and work on a particular project with the organization members, using a range of different mediums to engage the group.
"It's a great organization," co-coordinator and volunteer member Lara Shefelbine 16 said. "It has a great balance between challenging students to get out of their comfort zone with new artistic techniques and new activities, but also being a comfortable and safe space with volunteers working one-on-one with club members."
Techniques can get hard at times, but the club members are usually very willing to take a deep breath and try again. Volunteers try to do whatever they can to maximize members' learning while also keeping them happy and safe.
Club member Aria McAfee, who lives in Northfield, has been a member of A+ for almost six years. Her favorite medium to work with is photography, and she enjoys taking photos of landscapes around St. Olaf.
"My favorite part of the club is all the friends I've made and doing the summer art mart," McAfee said.
The club has also recently worked outside of the realm of 2D media into a more theatrical setting with improv activities and a recent production of "Buzz: The Musical," the story of a bee who didn't buzz quite like all the other bees. Typically, young adults on the autism spectrum do not like being placed in situations where the unexpected is involved. During the improvisation activities, however, many of the volunteer members were extremely impressed by the reactions of the club members who took over the stage. Many stepped out of their comfort zones and adapted to the situation with positive attitudes.
During the production of the musical, many club members were asked to memorize lines and dance routines, which sometimes proved difficult. Some members in the beginning refused to participate in certain aspects of the play, but by the end of the dress rehearsal, they participated in everything that was asked of them. As their comfort levels improved, so did their willingness to try new things.
On the opening day of Friday, Feb. 27, there was a packed house. Friends and family members from all around the Northfield area poured into the theater to see their loved ones perform. The club members and volunteers were prepared and excited. As the play started, the club members started off strong. As the play continued, one could see the members come out of their shells more and more, and at some points, ad-libs were even added in by some of the members, which only contributed to the audience's enthusiasm. The play not only raised approximately $2,000 for A+ activities, supplies and scholarship programs, but also helped some members realize their love for theater. Some actors expressed the desire to star in more plays in the future.
For both club members and volunteers, the A+ Art Club has changed many lives and cultivated strong friendships. For volunteers such as Shefelbine, the two hours a week she spends at A+ is her favorite part of the week.
"I've seen really meaningful relationships form between the club members and volunteers," Shefelbine said. "And the dynamic that forms between those people is so easy and kind, and every Tuesday when you walk in, it's like no time has passed. It's just such a great atmosphere for everyone involved, both volunteers and club members."