“We focus on everybody’s strengths and building their strengths,” said teacher Cheryl Horacek. “‘Strength: Find Yours’ is what we came up with to describe our transition academy and felt like that was a good message for the entire school. It’s about finding your strength and going for it.”
The Pope academy serves 14 students between ages 19 to 22 who are intellectually disabled. It helps students who have met their academic requirements learn life skills.
Kelly Karr, a Marietta resident who volunteers at Pope, connected academy teachers with ArtForce1, the foundation that provides these opportunities for students.
“We all thought it would be so cool to do something so permanent out of ceramic tile,” she said. “That artwork will still be communicating these guy’s message to whoever sees it forever and that’s really neat.”
Art therapist and Kennesaw State University art education professor Rick Garner started ArtForce1. It began in 2002 at Lassiter High School.
“We are working with people who are facing life challenges, either in the classroom here or in the health care setting,” Garner said.
He said it’s been a pleasure to work with Pope’s students.
“The excitement is wonderful but also part of this project is about bringing recognition to their work, beyond the classroom setting,” he said. “I think this is an effective way of doing it and they really enjoy it.”
With the help of Kerr, the students voted on multiple designs for their specific project.
“We talked about the strengths in our jobs,” said 19-year-old student Jonathan Coty.
He was very excited to talk about the mosaic.
Gabriel Warner-Gonzales, also 19, explained how the mosaic was made.
“We made mosaics with broken plates,” he said. “(Karr) broke the plates. We used a white glue to stick the plates on the board.”
Nineteen-year-old Wesley Heaton said they put cement between the pieces to hold the broken pieces of plate together.
“We wore goggles. The powder wasn’t good for us. We wore gloves on our hands,” he said. “It was amazing.”
Over a five-week period, each student had an opportunity to put together their own piece, eventually bringing them all together to convey the message of their class mosaic. More than 4,200 pieces of broken material were used to create the mosaic.
Warner-Gonzales’ mother, Donna Lehman, became teary-eyed describing what it has meant to her to see the students create the mosaic.
“It’s so exciting. It makes you want to jump up and down,” she said. “They have a very strong program here that is letting them become independent and learn skills and believe that they can do things.”
She also said her son has loved art since he was a child and began drawing even before he first spoke at age 5.
“He draws constantly,” she said. “I have thousands of his pieces. He does very detailed, tiny little pieces.”
Horacek said watching her students complete the project has been incredible.
“We work on independent skills, work behavior skills and functional living skills, so it’s good for them to be able to have a creative outlet,” she said, adding that it’s also therapeutic for the students.
“Students who normally don’t focus on something for a very long time would sit and work on this for two hours … attention to detail that we haven’t really seen before,” said academy teacher Kyle Roberts.
Both said they hope this is an art project they can continue with students in future years.
“We didn’t know what to expect but it turned out so well,” Horacek said. “We’d like to put one in every hallway if we could.”