(Alissa Malerman, Feb 8, 2017)
BERKLEY, MI – Students, community members, school administrators, support staff and parents streamed into the Berkley High School’s media center on Tuesday (Feb. 7) to celebrate the school’s newest addition, a mural that showcases community, friendship, understanding and acceptance. The effort was a collaboration of the school’s Peer Mentorship program and MICommunity, an organization that works with students with disabilities to develop social relationships, job opportunities, health and connectivity with peers outside of school.
The project began in the fall, when students with disabilities and their typically developing peers got together to talk about the qualities of friendship. What they revealed belonged on canvas, they decided.
“Things many of us take for granted are actually the building blocks of our world without realizing it,” said Katy Levinson, who heads the school’s Peer Mentorship program. “Things like unconditional kindness, inclusion, acceptance and diversity, growth and common interest are things that drive all of our relationships.”
Their ideas then went to artist Daniel Cascardo, who created black outlines that would provide the framework of the inclusive piece. In December, 32 students got together on a Sunday afternoon for four hours as they added not only color and detail, but their own interpretations of the bonds they have created.
“We painted, we played board games, we exchanged gifts, we ate pizza and everyone felt like they had a place, regardless of ability,” Levinson said. “Everyone put a paintbrush on the canvas and that’s what we’re trying to do, build a community at Berkley High School where everyone has a place and a chance to add their own flair to the community.”
Working side by side
The sense of community the students brought to the canvas was felt by attendees.
Among the beaming supporters of the creative effort was Berkley School District Superintendent Dennis McDavid. Looking up at the mural, which was hung in six panels above the entranceway, he remarked on the artwork.
One of the parents who organized the event was Mary Blazevich, who is also the founder of MICommunity. She recalled being worried at first that no one was staying inside the lines. Then, she said she realized that wasn’t important.
“What is important is this is the art of inclusion,” Blazevich said. “Everyone was working side by side. I realized it’s OK to not paint in the lines.”
She smiled when she recalled how the students were very accepting of one of the artist’s need to work alone. He needed to work intently on the Berkley Bear, the school’s mascot, and Blazevich said the students were quick to accept his needs.
Creating the art of inclusion
Cascardo took a moment to acknowledge the “special group of kids and parents” at the event and encourage everyone to continue to fill the walls with creations from artists of all abilities.
“I have to say that art does transform lives,” he said. “Yes, I did do the outlines. But to add the colors, patterns and shapes was phenomenal from the range of abilities coming from people that hardly can hold a paintbrush to some that are very creative in art. And to work side-by-side like that, was a special accomplishment.”
Students gathered around tables at the event, looking proudly at the mural, offering hugs, huddling over their lunches, giggling and enjoying the time away from their regular school day. Levinson applauded their efforts, noting the generosity of one of the students, Wendy Klunk, who donated her Bat Mitzvah money to fund part of this project.
Sophomore Kailey Egrin spoke about her experience in the peer mentorship program. She spoke highly of the friends she made and of the experience making the collaborative artwork.
“The mural hanging above you represents all the ways we are trying to make Berkley a more inclusive place for everyone,” she said. “The images that you see on the mural are all ideas that all of us have.”
She told the audience that she was very thankful that the community could come and support them, who broke out in a round of loud applause and cheers.
“It means so much to me that our community supports what we are trying to do,” she said. “I really do think it takes a village.”
Blazevich said the group has plans to see the Lion King, spend a weekend at Camp Tamarack and continue to foster bonds among the peers and within the community. Supporting inclusion is something she feels strongly about.
“It’s too important,” she said. “I don’t want them to just go home and be alone.”
“While academics at high school are really what the high school experience is about on paper,” Levinson said, “for a lot of our students with disabilities, the social experience at high school is sometimes even more important and where learning really happens. Learning to be in the world, learning independence, learning to communicate needs, desires and passions, enjoying life and feeling a part of something, those skills are really the most vital to a student’s high school experience and their overall emotional well-being.
“So once the school day is over, lots of our students go home and even if they want to participate in activities outside of school, they don’t get those invitations. So peer mentorship is working really hard to extend those friendships beyond the school day.”
For more information on MICommunity, visit www.micommunitycorp.org/.