The harmony of purpose

Lena Rivkin


My friends are great parents because they let their son skip school. Thursday, October 26th, 2012 was a regular old work or school day for most of Los Angeles, but for the students, teachers, aides, caregivers and families from LACOE Special Education Programs and LAUSD schools, it was Christmas, Hanukkah and everybody’s birthday all rolled into one huge party. And my friends Randy and Charisse make a point of having their 7-year old son, Tyler, volunteer with me.

Suzy Boyett, Program and Events Manager for the Music Center and her extraordinary staff tirelessly produce the Very Special Arts Festival. And it truly is the most exuberant day of the year – not just for the students, but also and especially for the artists and volunteers. The Music Center Education Division comes up with the Festival’s annual theme and each contributing artist develops a workshop around that theme.

This year’s theme was “Harmony”. Other contributing artists create workshops, which explore the concept of harmony with musical, theatrical, dance and even gardening and recycling activities. As a visual artist my job is to develop an art project for the children to construct.

One of the creative challenges for me is to devise a project that can be accomplished by every child with physical and/or developmental issues. A mask that each child could individually construct and decorate seemed like an excellent solution, while also being able to utilize the harmonious theme. Hunting down hundreds of peaceful, colorful and fun shapes, wooden sticks, cardboard, drawing materials is actually more fun than it sounds.

One simply cannot imagine how it feels to be descended upon by hundreds of eager, thrilled and creatively ravenous children. While sharing my creativity with children is enormously fun and emotionally rewarding, an extra-added, special bonus are my good friends who volunteer to help me. In years past, both Liz Loya and Charisse Hewitt Webster carve time out of their super busy lives and careers to help me out. This year was even more special (for me) as Tyler asked to volunteer- again.

Last year was Tyler’s first VSAF experience. He was very eager to come when his mother asked if he wanted to help out. He might have been more excited that he was skipping school, but he was very helpful at organizing art supplies by color and purpose. Then, as thousands of physically and developmentally disabled students poured into the plaza, Tyler shyly retreated into the arms of his father, Randy. But as the children swarmed our workshop, Tyler, without judgment or prejudice, gently guided, aided, and encouraged each child to make the best possible mask they could create. The children loved having a fellow child help them.

By the end of the day, Tyler had lost all sense of the other children being different than him. In fact, Tyler told his mother he couldn’t wait for the next Very Special Arts Festival. True to his word, (and with fewer teeth than last year!) Tyler and his parents came back two weeks ago to help me.

This year Tyler wasn’t shy at all. He jumped in to help right away, heroic in his calm among the storm of eager, rushing hands. Tyler and the children were all working together creating their masks of harmony. And in all the madness and frenzy, there was a poetic kind of harmony to it all. Every festival reminds me of my parents who were the first ‘creative volunteers’ I knew.

My parents made a joyful lifetime out of volunteering. Since I grew up with a severely autistic older brother, I wasn’t uncomfortable surrounded by children with special needs. I grew up lucky because my parents taught me how to give and how to ‘play well with others’. I was raised to be a volunteer by volunteers. I had no idea how special that ‘inheritance’ was.

We are a giving country. Americans donate and volunteer more than any other country in the world. But there is an untapped reservoir of volunteers- our children. There are endless benefits to raising our children with a spirit of volunteerism: making a positive difference in the lives of others; the realization that no matter how young, a child still has something to share; helping others creates empathy and tolerance, which goes a long way to combat bullying; feeling needed helps develop self esteem and problem-solving skills; and ultimately, helping others opens a child’s world to the enormous possibilities that lie within them.

Tyler’s parents, Randy and Charisse are superb role models. As soon as I tell them when the festival is, they block off the day in their school calendar. After the Festival, Tyler took the Harmony Mask project to school with him. He explained the Very Special Arts Festival to his classmates and taught them the project.... teaching the importance of giving and being a person of purpose.

I look forward to the generous young man Tyler will become and how his volunteering spirit can help change the world. Even if all Tyler does is share his volunteering spirit with his own children, he will be changing the world for the better.

Parents teach their children how to be people. Good parents teach their children how to be citizens of the world. Great parents teach their children that the best gift one can receive is to give.

As the holiday season looms, the best gift of the season won’t be found in the shopping malls. There is no greater gift to give one’s children than a sense of purpose that involves helping others.

Lena Rivkin, M.F.A., is an artist and graphologist living in Los Angeles


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