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FROM THE VAULT: Life is washable! The Magic Paintbrush Project (2007)

FROM THE VAULT: Life is washable! The Magic Paintbrush Project (2007)

Healthy Life Magazine 2007

A Note from Healthy Life Magazine Editor, Emily Mancini

I recently had the opportunity to attend a Magic Paintbrush Project event where children with special needs were invited to paint with the players of the Binghamton Senators. While I was familiar with the project, once I saw it in action I realized it was so much more special than I had imagined. As soon as Project Coordinator Jennifer O'Brien gave the signal, complete chaos broke out among children, players, friends and families. The laughter in the room was as overwhelming as the colors that were not only covering the canvas, but the hands, feet, faces and clothing of everyone in the room. The energy was infectious and you felt as if you were welcome with open arms to participate. No matter how big or small, young or old, healthy or handicapped you had arrived - at that moment everyone was equally special, and entirely happy.

On our Facebook page now: See photos from the Magic Paintbrush Project 2007

We live in a world where children are taught to keep order, stay clean, color inside the lines, and that those who are different are often left out. This project rejects all of those ideas, and allows people to connect on a higher level- where no one misses out on the fun. When it all begins, you watch children that are so excited to participate crawling eagerly across the room, wrestling to get their shoes off, or practically throwing themselves from their wheelchairs and leaving all their disabilities outside of the canvas. With the music blasting, everyone lets down their boundaries as they laugh, touch, hug, and help children they have only just met. And every loving moment, every giggle, footprint, and color is captured on the canvas.

There were moments when you wondered who was enjoying the event more, the children or their families. I couldn't help but observe the parents and caretakers, beaming with such pride and happiness as they saw the pure joy their children were experiencing. While one paint-covered father laughed and crawled after his daughters in the middle of the canvas, another father quietly observed his own daughter, appearing so full of happiness and pride that he would burst at any moment.

At the end of the day when everyone gathered together to take a group photo, one of the players scooped up a boy from his wheelchair and sat in the middle of their beautiful new painting. As the little boy looked around the room, he began to smile. As his smile got bigger he began to giggle. His giggle got even louder and fuller, until it because a great big laugh from the middle of his belly. Everyone seemed to pause for just a moment to listen to this little boy expressing his joy in the purest way, and I couldn't help welling up, feeling so honored to be a part of such a wonderful moment.

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Getting messy is good therapy. At least that is what the organizers of The Magic Paintbrush Project are finding when they give kids with special needs the chance to play with paint.

"We take kids on a fantastic journey where they learn that coloring outside the lines is okay, getting messy is fun, and that life is indeed washable" explains Jennifer O'Brien, Project Coordinator for The Magic Paintbrush Project.

The Magic Paintbrush Project is the direct result of one mother's efforts to get creative in order to help her own two children. Jennifer O'Brien and her husband were living in Colorado when their youngest daughter was diagnosed with a mild form of cerebral palsy. They moved to the Southern Tier in the spring of 2004, where they soon learned their oldest daughter was also living with another form of mild CP.

"When the girls were first diagnosed, every time the doctor spoke to me or gave me advice he had to talk to me through a wall of grief," says Jennifer. "I kept thinking, if only - if only my daughters didn't have this disorder. I signed up to be a mom, not a therapist."

"Living on the rural Western Slope of Colorado we didn't have access to a lot of services without traveling. In New York, therapists came to our home, but at the end of a 45-minute session there was nothing we could take away - nothing we could copy," says Jennifer. "We wanted a way to continue helping our daughters work toward their physical and occupational therapy goals between sessions, without having it feel like therapy."

One day Jennifer got down on the kitchen floor with her two daughters, lots of paint, and a blank canvas. Using ideas she had picked up from their physical and occupational therapy sessions, mother and daughters got messy while simultaneously working on muscle tone as well as fine and gross motor skills.

"As we painted, we cheered for each other, accepted one another, and marveled at the colors," says Jennifer. Her daughters never thought of the painting as therapy - and neither did Jennifer. It was fun - a way to get lost in a beautiful, shared experience while making memories in the form of brightly painted canvases. The paintings were lovingly called "O'Brien Originals" and soon found their way into the hands of many O'Brien family members in the form of gifts.

When the O'Brien family moved to the Binghamton area, Jennifer found herself telling her hair stylist and friend, Michael Libous about their painting adventures.

"She came in for a haircut, and as we talked I asked about her family. She said that she and her daughters had been doing some silly artwork. Then she showed me pictures of what they had been doing and I was amazed. I told her I had to have one, and that painting is still hanging in my salon," said Michael Libous of Michael Libous Salon, Metro Center in Binghamton.

Libous encouraged Jennifer to expand her efforts, sell the paintings to fund the purchase of necessary supplies, and invite more people to get involved. He was thrilled to see the project begin to blossom, and continues to stay involved.

"I found it to be one of the most inspirational and innovative uses of artwork for conceptual therapy that I have ever seen," Libous added. "I'm behind it 500%!"

At first Jennifer couldn't imagine putting a value on the paintings. "I thought they were crazy! Who would pay for this artwork that we had so much fun creating?" However, she did like the idea of inviting more families to participate. Because supplies are costly, she began putting the pieces of a plan together.

"The Discovery Center and The Handicapped Children's Association provided the foundation and encouragement to expand the scope of our work and the Oakdale Mall opened its heart and doors, providing us a space," explains Jennifer.

The Handicapped Children's Association is a private, non-profit agency, serving people with disabilities. They are also an affiliate of the New York State Cerebral Palsy Associations. The Discovery Center is a unique hands-on interactive museum for kids. Its mission is to "develop the intellectual, physical and emotional well-being of the children of the Southern Tier through participatory exhibits and programs." The missions and the resources of both organizations tied-in nicely with the goals of The Magic Paintbrush Project.

Soon, through collaboration with many local physical and occupational therapists, physicians, and professional artists; and with the support of the Handicapped Children's Association and Discovery Center, as well as many others, The Magic Paintbrush Project began providing facilitated art experiences for participants with special needs, their families, and caregivers.

Children, as well as adults, with diagnosis' as varied as autism, Down's Syndrome, cerebral palsy, sensory integration disorders, muscular dystrophy, traumatic brain injuries, attention deficit disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder were all welcomed into the program. Families and caregivers participate together with the people they love creating "Experiences and Moments" at workshops that reinforce developmental goals.

"Therapists would try to get my daughters to squat down as part of their therapy, but they would just get bored and walk away. When they're painting they could squat for hours and not even notice," says Jennifer. "That's part of the beauty of this."

Now, sponsors, volunteers, and donations - not to mention a whole lot of passion and enthusiasm from all those involved - are what keep the project going.

"The workshops benefit participants by helping them achieve their therapeutic goals in a way that is fun. The art they create benefits the organization by raising the necessary funds, and the exhibition of the artwork raises awareness in the community of the abilities and adaptability of the special needs community," says Jennifer. "Every aspect of this project is a benefit."

A gala fundraising event, On the Seventh Day We Danced, was held at the Discovery Center on October 7, where artwork created by participants throughout the summer was displayed and auctioned off in both silent and live auctions. The event raised $12,000 for The Discovery Center of the Southern Tier and The Handicapped Children's Association of the Southern New York.

Other workshops and special fund raising events have included an evening at loyal supporter Dave Dunster's restaurant, DC Dunster's (formerly ZaZou_. "I love seeing the children's faces light up the second they arrive," Dave exclaims. "They can't wait to start creating their artwork. This program helps so many families in our community".

The Binghamton Senators hockey team has hosted events at the Arena, and recently held a workshop where the hockey players painted with the children. The Senators later participated in a fundraising effort, auctioning off the opportunity to paint with a player at The Clay Ground in Vestal. The original painted plates from that workshop were auctioned off as well.

The Magic Paintbrush Project is a 501c3 non profit, run completely by volunteers, and funded by donations. Looking toward the future, the project recently became a part of Binghamton Imaginink, Inc., an art and science based organization providing creative outlets for school-age children and their families. Binghamton Imaginink, Inc. is best known locally as the producers of the DaVinci Festival which includes The daVinci Student Art Show and the daVinci Festival Invention Convention.

Since it's inception, more than 200 local families have participated in The Magic Paintbrush Project workshops. ArtWorks, a gallery displaying the work of The Magic Paintbrush Project, will reopen in February 2007 in the Oakdale Mall. You can also view the art created by Magic Paintbrush participants at D.C Dunster's, and A Frame Shoppe. New volunteers, as well as participants are currently being accepted. For more information visit, or call 656.4127.

Jennifer O'Brien
Project Coordinator
The Magic Paintbrush Project


Written by Lisa Mayers