October 4, 2011
Tulsa World
Mike Averill

Melissa Dickerson discovered the therapeutic side of art by chance.

Because of her multiple sclerosis, Dickerson went from being able to walk to using a wheelchair and is now somewhere in between, relying on her chair most of the time.

Three years ago her neurologist recommended that she go to the Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges for physical therapy, something her insurance wouldn’t cover.

“I came for the physical therapy and stayed for the art,” she said.

The nonprofit center offers a wide range of wellness, recreational programs and rehabilitative services for people with physical challenges.

About 40 students participate in a variety of arts programs, said Janice Bawden, a visual arts instructor.

“It adds meaning to life. That’s especially important with people with physical challenges because they may not be able to participate in activities as they had in the past,” Bawden said.

The center’s art programs include art history, painting, sculpting, stained glass, ceramics and open studio time.

Dickerson, who had never painted before going to the center, spends about four days a week working on art projects.

Without the program, “a lot of my friends here would be staying at home having a pity party,” she said. “You feel worse and worse when you focus on what feels bad. This program really means a lot to me.”

The students’ works of art are displayed in the studio and are for sale. The art is also sold at the center’s annual Holiday Mart and area arts festivals.

“When you’re on a fixed income, it’s nice to have that little extra money to go out and eat,” Dickerson said. “When you can’t work for a living, you start feeling kind of worthless.

“It’s nice to feel worthwhile again,” she said.

One of the newest programs at the center is “neurobics,” a brain fitness and training class using Posit Science software that focuses on two separate areas: auditory and visual.

The different exercises help with working memory, concentration and alertness.

“It helps with brain plasticity, opening new pathways,” said Margie Crossno, program and volunteer services coordinator. “The program really helps our members who have suffered a stroke, head injury or trauma.”

Crossno said it can help with remembering sequences and make it easier to carry on a conversation.

The class is getting positive feedback.

“I really like it. For me it’s really challenging,” Victoria Baker said. “I like the challenge.”

Baker was in a motorcycle accident when she was 19 and suffered a traumatic brain injury, said her mother, Rhondelle Blankenship.

“She has a lot of physical handicaps but feels trapped inside her brain,” Blankenship said.

Blankenship said she moved her daughter here from Colorado just for the programs at the center and called the effect it has had on the 27-year-old “amazing.”

“She was deeply depressed. Now she’s made friends, her attitude has changed and she’s excited to come here every day,” she said.

“Even my attitude has changed.”