In a brightly lit central gathering area on a recent morning, Haitian drummer Gaston “Bonga” Jean-Baptiste pounded out an irresistible pulse.
Clients of the Wellness Arts and Education Center danced and clapped and played along on percussion instruments.
In the art studio nearby, a client named Johnny was putting the finishing touches on his life-size baseball player puppet while Lewis worked on a painting, each under the one-on-one supervision of an art facilitator.
Just down the hall, past the brand-new kitchen and a library outfitted with books, computers, and a piano keyboard, one young man was in a yoga studio finishing up a session with an instructor.
For officials at the WAE Center, an alternative learning environment for people with disabilities, this was the kind of facility they dreamed of when they first announced plans to move to the new space at 270 Pleasant Valley Way. After six years at B’nai Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in West Orange, WAE moved into its new headquarters on Oct. 25, where it shares administrative offices with its parent organization, Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled of MetroWest.
“It is amazing to me when I think back to having the vision” that started the pilot program nearly nine years ago, said Marilynn Schneider, WAE founder and director. “What a big day it was when we opened at B’nai Shalom. It was just amazing, and we were just a handful-and-a-half of people, you know, and look where we’ve come to, year by year growing and changing.”
The center will hold an open house Tuesday and Wednesday, Dec. 7 and 8, in honor of its new location. A special art installation will be on exhibition at that time.
WAE was begun as a pilot project in 2002 to provide people with disabilities a place where they could have opportunities to discover and pursue their interests. The WAE Center launched in rented space at B’nai Shalom in October 2004 through a grant from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey. Beginning with nine clients, the program has grown to 53 members with a diverse range of interests, backgrounds, and abilities.
“We were really stretching the walls there for some time,” said Schneider, who is quick to add, “But in a good way.”
JSDD moved into the new 7,000-square-foot location in July. The WAE Center’s area encompasses 3,500 square feet. At B’nai Shalom, the center had a large classroom and a small studio, totaling about 900 square feet.
The change is already making a big difference. On previous visits to the former WAE Center space, there were instructors working one-on-one with people in random locations — a hallway, a corner. On this day, a writing instructor went off to a private room with a client. All of the artwork produced at the center can finally be stored in the center’s own storage area. With a kitchen, the center was able to prepare its first Thanksgiving lunch, with help from members.
“The socialization opportunities are greater here because people can spread out and yet be separate,” pointed out Schneider, who stops to talk with clients, interact with them if they cannot talk, touch a shoulder, or offer a smile.
At the open house — 11 a.m.-2 p.m. on Tuesday, 7-9 p.m. the next day — guests will be able to tour the facility; meet members, artists, and staff; and sample some of the available options, like circus arts, painting, yoga/meditation, speaking circle, cooking, and theater arts. Entrance is free.
Local West Orange artist vanOs will unveil her wishXchange project at the open house. An interactive art piece, it invites participants to think of what they would like to see happen in their lives, write it on a flag, and plant it to create a communal collection of wishes. VanOs is a Dutch-born artist who lives and works in West Orange.
The first installation of the piece took place in October during the Valley Open Studio Stroll and Earth Festival in Orange. There, passers-by wrote wishes and planted them in a shopping cart filled with soil and lined with grass sod. The resulting piece is permanently installed on the corner of Scotland Road and Freeman Street in Orange.
The second installment will occur at the WAE Center open house. This wishXchange has two components. WAE Center members are creating their own wish cards that will be installed like prayer flags at the entrance to the center. In addition, blank flags will be available for open house guests to write their wishes and plant them, adding to the collective.
For information about the WAE Center open house, call 973-325-1494. To learn more about vanOs and her work, visit her website at www.vanosstudio.com.