Rainbow Road: Nearly 30 artists take over The Greene for Life Essentials

Photo: Craig Houdeshell; Artwork: Jennifer Chaparro

By Joyell Nevins

“I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.” —Edward Everett Hale

Life Essentials, a nonprofit organization serving Greene and Montgomery counties, lives out this quote.  It serves a specific purpose for a specific population, and does it well.

“A lot of our clients are the invisible people,” says Linda Roepken, Life Essentials executive director. “Most of the world doesn’t know how wonderful they are.”

Life Essentials works with “vulnerable older adults.” Most of the clientele are senior citizens 50 years and older who have been diagnosed with severe mental illness and are either alone or estranged from their families. They are referred from group homes, nursing homes, and physicians.

“We do some pretty neat stuff that no one else [in this area] is doing,” Roepken says. “We believe that we all have a right to a certain quality of life, and we’re helping people get there one way or the other.”

The success of Life Essentials’ programs speaks for itself: an independent study by the Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) board, discovered that people who participated in Life Essentials programs had a drastically lower rate of psychiatric hospitalizations compared to those with similar illnesses and circumstances in other areas of the county.

“That’s an outcome we’re really proud of,” Roepken says.

One of the main services Life Essentials provides is a support system, a sense of belonging. Staff point out that their clients often struggle with self-isolation. It can be easy to slip into a routine of holing up in your home, watching television, and drinking coffee all day, with little human connection.

“This is not a healthy lifestyle for anyone,” Roepken says. “We help them build relationships with each other.” Relationships that turn into something as sweet and simple as attending a Dragons game together or as serious as support while fighting cancer.

Life Essentials provides the space and the foundation for these friendships to grow. They do that through the Chums program, which is a blend between a group meeting and a classroom. Chums combines education, networking, and behavioral activation services.

The Chums meet for two hours every other week, along with picnics and parties for special occasions. Transportation is provided when necessary.

Each session focuses on a life skill or subject that affects the clients’ generation, such as how not to get taken in by telephone scammers. Other topics have included communication skills, assertive behavior, talking to the doctor, self-esteem, diabetes, holiday survival, budgeting, making friends, stress management, exercise, and dieting.

“I try to discuss things that will help educate them on mental health as well as maintaining their independence,” Program Coordinator Jasmyne Williams says.

“We are helping them take back control of their lives,” adds Development Director Julie Crusenberry.

Depending on time constraints, meetings can also include social and game time. The clients especially enjoy playing cards and Pictionary.

“We like to have fun,” Roepken laughs.

Fun and the Chums Pantry helps keep clients coming back. Clients get “Chum bucks” for attendance and participation, which they can then use for “purchasing” items in the pantry.

The pantry contains almost any household or toiletry item not covered by food stamps: toilet paper, tissue, deodorant, mouthwash, shampoo, etc. There are even some playful items in there like a radio and puzzle boxes.

“It just amazes me how very successful it’s been,” Crusenberry says of the pantry and bucks.

According to Crusenberry, the Chums program is where Life Essentials got its start. Initially it was an agency called Chums and Choices, geared to providing social support to seniors with long-term mental illness through volunteer involvement.

Chums and Choices opened in 1987 with a demonstration grant of the National Institute of Mental Health. After the initial grant ended, the local mental health board continued the funding. Life Essentials was officially established as a nonprofit organization in 1991. The rest of funding comes from ADAMHS, Montgomery County Human Service Levy funding for Frail Elderly Services, and community donors.

The other main component of Life Essentials is the Guardianship Program. Court-appointed guardians help make decisions for clients deemed mentally incompetent, to ensure their safety and well-being and help prevent exploitation.

Those decisions include choices about housing, medicine, health benefits, legal services, and long-time care. The goal is for clients to live in “the least restrictive environment possible” and receive “compassionate medical care,” as described on the Life Essentials website.

Being a guardian is a commitment of significant time and resources, so there is also a Guardian Angel program. These volunteers make weekly visits to clients to not only serve as friends, but to make sure clients are are being properly cared for in their environment.

“There is so much need, and the need is growing, too,” Crusenberry says, referring to the growing older generation.

Despite the continual needs the staff confronts, they note that it’s a joyful work environment.

“This is a happy place—we love our elderly,” Crusenberry says.

Roepken agrees, adding, “What we do matters. Every day, I get to see people make movement in their life.”

 

Let’s “chalk” about it

That happiness shows up in fundraising, too. Life Essentials is supported by grants, public funds, and private donations. The biggest private fundraiser is the “Chalk About It” street chalking festival, coming up this year on June 10, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., at the Greene.

“The Greene has been a fabulous partner,” Crusenberry gushes.

Almost 30 artists will take over the street behind the Greene’s main courtyard, each one with a 9-feet-by-9-feet space to create a pastel chalk masterpiece.

Professional chalk artist Jennifer Chaparro will be at the center of it all, designing a three-dimensional work of art and offering her expertise as needed. Be aware—to really appreciate the 3D aspect of the work, it should be viewed through a camera lens.

Chaparro initially got involved with chalking when she started attending street painting festivals with her teenage daughter. The festivals were a way for them to be artistic and spend time together.

“We found we really liked it, and we were good at it, too,” the artist says. She is a rare bird who does this “performing art” professionally. She likens her art creations to a band playing at an event, working and speaking with the public and other artists as she performs.

Both online and at the festival, the members of the public can vote on their favorite masterpiece or artist—one dollar for each vote. At the end of the day, half of the funds goes to the artist, the other half to Life Essentials.

Chaparro notes that it’s a special type of person who “gets” the chalking phenomenon.

“You either love it or you hate it,” she says. “It’s either the greatest thing in the world and you fall into it, or it’s the worst thing in the world and you can’t stand the heat and the chalk dust.”

If you fall into the first category, sign up as an artist. If you want to support Life Essentials but have a feeling you’d fit better as the latter, go with the scavenger hunt the staff is putting together.

The scavenger hunt lasts all day. It is free to participate, but costs $10 to enter completed cards in a prize raffle.

Chaparro lives in Florida now, but has a soft spot for Dayton. She and her family lived here for eight years, during which she was very involved with the Dayton Visual Arts Center and the artistic community.

“I was really impressed with the quality of what was being produced,” she says.

The chalking fundraiser festival is a collaboration between Chaparro and Roepken, who once worked together through Dayton’s Ronald McDonald House.

“It’s been a natural fit—I gave her some ideas, and she’s been doing a great job with it,” Chaparro says.

Kids can participate in their own art activities, sponsored by Decoy Art Studio of Beavercreek. The Greene is also holding a large-scale kids festival from noon to 4 p.m. the same day. The festival will include a petting zoo, inflatables, an obstacle course, and face painting.

The day will be capped off with an evening block party. The high-energy dance band Funky G & the Groove Machine will headline the night. Funky G is a Greene favorite and known for their mix of R&B, funk and hip-hop.

Chalk About It helps Life Essentials fulfill its goals to help “invisible people,” those who may not have a loud voice or have been largely forgotten by society. Others can get involved by donating online, becoming a guardian angel volunteer, and contributing personal hygiene items, like toothpaste, shampoo, and individually wrapped toilet paper rolls, to the Chums Pantry.

For more information on Chalk About It or Life Essentials, please contact
HomeOffice@LifeEssentials.org, call 937.586.0545, or visit LifeEssentials.org.

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Joyell Nevins
Joyell believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at swbgblog.wordpress.com or reach her at joyellnevins@daytoncitypaper.com

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