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When Special Tree’s Vocational Arts Program began in 2014, client Aaron L. was skeptical about participating. He’d always wanted to try painting, but worried that he couldn’t hold a brush steady due to severe hand tremors that resulted from a brain injury he sustained in 2008. “I wasn’t sure what I could do.”

But all that changed when Aaron finally worked up the courage to give it a try. “I really surprised myself by how much I love to paint,” he said. Program coordinator Ed Meese, who is also a professional artist, showed him techniques for controlling the brush and also tricks of the trade to draw straight lines. “Ed made it easy to figure out how to paint.” Aaron paints twice a week in Special Tree’s art studio, but also spends many hours painting on his own and researching future works. “I enjoy it because it eases my mind and helps me focus.”

Not only is painting having a positive impact on Aaron, it’s also helping him to earn a paycheck.

According to Meese, Special Tree’s Vocational Arts Program is unique because it combines the therapeutic benefits of art -making in a vocational rehabilitation setting. “Through the process of creating art, clients like Aaron experience self-expression and a sense of accomplishment while also developing concrete skills for future employment in the community.” Clients have the opportunity to earn an hourly wage during their time in the studio and to sell their work at local art fairs and online throughout the year. And because the program is therapeutically-based, it can be tailored to meet each participant’s needs, interests, and skills.

Since participating in the program, Meese and others have seen big changes in Aaron. “Aaron’s communication and social skills have greatly improved,” said Meese. “He can dialog about his art and when he makes a mistake or when someone doesn’t like his work, he doesn’t let it upset him.” Brooke Parker who works with Aaron in Special Tree’s Day Treatment Services feels that art enhances his quality of life and improves his outlook. “It’s really opened him up. He’s good at it and it’s something personal that he gets to make.”

Aaron also participates in other paid work experiences at Special Tree’s Industrial Operations Center in Wayne and the greenhouse at the NeuroCare Center in Romulus. He would like to eventually work in the community, but for now he’s working hard on improving skills, building self-confidence, and making art.