Breaking Ground 113 - Leadership through the Arts: The Council’s Scholarship Fund

One of our Council’s main goals is “developing engaged leaders” in Tennessee’s disability community. Our Scholarship Fund falls under this goal. People with disabilities and their families can apply to use our Scholarship Fund for disability-related learning or leadership opportunities. We believe participation in the arts is a powerful way for people with disabilities to grow their confidence and power of self-expression – key leadership skills!

We asked two Scholarship Fund recipients to share their experiences with arts-based learning, and what these opportunities have meant to them and their families.

a young Latino man standing by a body of water, wearing a black tshirt and sunglasses
Josecarlos Fumero

Josecarlos Fumero – Dream with Me Performing Arts workshop, from a Self-Advocate’s Perspective

I am 21 years old, and I have autism.  I was diagnosed at 5 years old. I moved to Nashville in 2020 and currently live with my family in Mt. Juliet. My favorite hobbies are art, writing short stories, acting, movies, dinosaurs, manga, and Godzilla.

My mom and I gave ourselves the task of looking for some workshops that interest me. That's how we discovered the “Dream with Me” program. They offered sketch comedy, and I like it a lot. My mom contacted Debbie (who runs the program). By May 2022, I started the workshop.  

I got to know more people and make friends.  Debbie is an excellent and lovely teacher.  I have had the opportunity to participate in comedy sketches, play different characters, produce a sketch, and contribute ideas. Most importantly, my family was able to see the activities we did for Halloween and Christmas. 

What I liked the most was:

  • having the opportunity to meet more people
  • that it is an online platform
  • expanding my knowledge of sketch, comedy, and production techniques, and
  • working with Debbie. 

In general, I think I did very well.  Debbie made us feel very comfortable and confident.  Acting shyness is common when one is new, but I was able to overcome it. 

The workshop helped me a lot.   I never imagined enjoying this opportunity so much. 

We finished the workshop in December. I would like to find more workshops related to the subject of art because other branches of art that are my hobbies are drawing and writing short stories of science fiction and horror.  I would really like to find another workshop, but it is super difficult to find this type of activity for special people like me. 

Participating in these kinds of arts workshops is a unique experience that you can enjoy with your family.  It helps you develop other skills and talents.

a young black woman with a black head covering, a brown silky long dress, black fancy gloves, a cheetah-print wrap and stage makeup
Danielle Agholor in costume

Ify Agholor - Backlight Productions: Apprenticeships in the Art Industry, from a Parent’s Perspective

Being a parent to kids on the autism spectrum (I have a boy and a girl now approaching adulthood) can be overwhelming at times. But it’s also joyful to be raising individuals who have all sorts of hidden talents and gifts. One of the difficulties one encounters as they approach adulthood is finding programs that are age appropriate, engaging, and creative enough to sustain their interest over time. So many of the available programs are for young children with disabilities.  This is where "Backlight Productions’ Apprenticeship in the Art Industry" program fills the void.

I was not sure what to expect when I enrolled my daughter in the program, but she thrived. She actively participated in discussing the various aspects of stage production and behind the scenes elements. She learned about props design, costumes, staging, sketching, set design, character development, and directing. My daughter shared her opinion and put her ideas into action.

I talked with Melissa Smith, the executive director of the program. Melissa teaches various aspects of theatre production and backstage work to help people discover their strengths and talents. That includes:

  • set design,
  • staging,
  • props,
  • lighting,
  • music cues,
  • wardrobe,
  • and more.

Melissa believes there are many career opportunities for people, including those with disabilities, in supporting stage performances. She coaches all the participants and encourages them to share their opinions. She sees each person’s individual strengths and supports them to work together as a group during live stage performances. Melissa shared that she enjoys seeing how excited participants are when their ideas are used in a stage production. My daughter was very happy to be a part of this great program.

This a pilot program, and Melissa hopes to turn this into a certification program to help prepare people for job opportunities in the arts industry and theatre.

My perspective as parent: I am glad that my kid found an avenue to express herself, exchange ideas with her peers, and be actively engaged.  This provided her an opportunity to discover new strengths and talents within herself. She learned she had the ability to coordinate costumes, sketch, color match, and work as a stagehand.  These were strengths we never knew existed but were unlocked during this program. We look forward to more opportunities and we are grateful to Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities for the support to experience this program. 

two women sit at a table together that is covered in colorful sketches of costumes and smile for the camera
Backlight Productions Executive Director Melissa Smith and Danielle Agholor discussing and sketching costumes