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VSA festival celebrates final year

Sedrick Faulker, at left, a senior at Wolfe School, enjoys working with clay during the 14th annual Very Special Arts Festival held at Piedmont High School Friday. Pictured at right is parent volunteer Judy Braswell. Pictured below, Spencer Morrison, center stage, serenades the crowd during the opening ceremony.

The 2008 Very Special Arts Festival, held annually for the past 14 years, was a huge success this year, albeit bittersweet.
    This year’s festival, held Friday, April 18, 2008, at Piedmont High School, served about 600 special needs children, and was enjoyed by a crowd of more than 1,700 students, parents and volunteers.
    The Very Special Arts (VSA) festival’s motto this year – “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened,” came about because the event has outgrown its organizers, Piedmont High School’s National Arts Honor Society (NAHS), and the school at which it is held.
    “With 1,700 people out here, we’re more than doubling our school’s population,” said Piedmont High 17-year-old senior Katie Oliver, president of Piedmont’s NAHS. “So, it’s a safety issue with the size of it. It’s really about facilities and safety.”
    At the start of this year’s event, festival co-organizer, Susan Helms, an art teacher at Piedmont High, led a standing ovation for the brains behind VSA, Piedmont High art teacher Tracy Price, honoring her hard work in making the event a success the past 14 years.
    “We’ve been very blessed we’ve been able to do this,” Price said. “We’ve had enormous support from our community, our school, the students, everybody. We feel like for 14 years, we’ve nurtured this baby and now it’s walking on its own. We’re ready to pass it on. As Union County grows, this project has just grown beyond our limits of what we can do. But that’s not a bad thing.”
    Union County Community Arts Council Executive Director Barbara Faulk said the VSA festival is one of the premiere arts events in the county. “These special needs children know this event is especially created for them,” she said. “It gives them an opportunity to be together as a group. There is some sort of art experience that each child can do throughout the day, on all levels.”
    About 1,000 volunteers helped make the festival a reality this year. As with other VSA festivals, preparation began in the summer, but then continued throughout the school year.
    Students held fundraisers and depended on grants and contributions from the community to fund the event. This year’s festival cost about $27,000. Since its beginning in 1994, VSA has raised more than $200,000 for special needs children.
    UCPS Superintendent Dr. Ed Davis said the VSA Festival has become a signature event for the school and Union County and thanked organizers during the opening ceremony. “ I want to express my thanks to Ms. Price and Ms. Helms, and the students of Piedmont High School and its Arts Honor Society for all the hard work they’ve done through the years to host this event. I want them to know how much we appreciate all they’ve done for Union County.”
    Price said the festival teaches all those involved how to be a better person and the importance of treating everyone with respect.
    “It’s a life-changing event for high school students,” Price said. “Whether they go on to do anything for special needs children or not, from this moment on, they do treat children with special needs with respect. It’s not possible to come to this event and not be affected in the way that you treat people.”
    “At VSA, we try to make sure that every child feels special and is able to enjoy art in a safe, happy environment,” Oliver said. “It helps children with disabilities experience art, grow in their creativity and feel more comfortable with themselves.”
    Piedmont High School Arts Honor Society alumni often return each year to volunteer at the festival. Geneva Addison, 20, a special education major at Clemson said her career choices were defined by the VSA festival.
    “When I was in 10th grade, I started doing the pottery (booth) for the festival and I just loved it,” Addison said. “I want to do art therapy with special needs children. Everyone can express themselves through art, no matter what intellectual level you may be.”
    Laura Hyatt, 20, a 2005 Piedmont graduate and past NAHS president, is now a student at Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Ga., “I come back every year. I would not miss this for the world. This is my eighth year to be a part of it. It’s one of those experiences that changes you. It changed me. It gets in your blood.”
    All the hard work has paid off for students who have learned valuable life lessons from the festival. “It teaches students that everyone is important and you can do great things,” Oliver said. “We’re a club of 50 people and we put this on. One person can make a difference.”
    Oliver designed the VSA’s program using the artwork submitted by Drezden Crowder from East Elementary. Piedmont art students Alyssa Carlson and Kelsey Whitley designed the event T-shirts using the artwork of Timothy Miller at Wolfe School.
    The festival invitations were designed by Piedmont High art students Kelsey Whitley, using the artwork of Carey Grier, Jr., from Wolfe School. Event certificates were designed by Piedmont art students Bianca Abarca and Michael Bolton, using the art of Elijah Crowder from Rock Rest Elementary.
    At the onset of the festival, Price recognized the Union County Community Arts Council, Union Power Cooperative and Wal-Mart for their continued support. Sponsors also included Subway, Coca Cola and Bruster’s Real Ice Cream.

Written by: Deb Coates Bledsoe, Publications Coordinator
Posted: May 01, 2008 by Deb Coates Bledsoe

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