Hidden holidays

Lena Rivkin


My favorite holiday just passed. The crisp fall air was alive with excitement, music, and the laughter of ecstatic children. It’s hard to put into words the feeling of having hundreds of eager and thrilled children descend upon me with their creative enthusiasm. The holiday I’m talking about is not Halloween, but, the Very Special Arts Festival held annually in Los Angeles. No, it’s not recognized as a national holiday, but to the artists and students involved, it is a powerful and meaningful occasion.

The Festival Producer, Rada Jovicic, and her tireless staff produced this year's Very Special Arts Festival on October 19, 2018 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The Very Special Arts Festival is a special day of the year--not just for the LA County Office of Education and LA Unified School District students with special needs, but also their teachers, aides, administrators, caregivers and families, as well as for the artists and volunteers who provide the creative fun and entertainment.

This year’s theme was “Celebrate”. Many contributing artists were invited to create workshops exploring what it means to ‘celebrate’, through art, music, theater, dance and even gardening and recycling activities. Representing the visual arts, my challenge was to develop an art project for 700 to 1000 children with physical and/or developmental challenges.

My solution was a mask for each child to construct and decorate in whatever way felt personally celebratory to them. Hunting down and preparing thousands of colorful, fun shapes, wooden sticks, cardboard, glitter, beads, and drawing materials is incredibly fun.

While sharing my creativity with children is emotionally rewarding, an extra special bonus were my volunteers. In years past, friends and their children have carved time out of their super busy lives and careers to help, but this year was different. This year my volunteers were four high school students.

If I had any preconceived notions about teenagers with their faces buried in smartphones, my preconceptions were corrected by the cheerful helpfulness of Jonatan Ortiz, Aliah Cruz, Ana Gonzalez, and Mayra Aparicio. Students from Bell Gardens High School offer a community service program where students volunteer all over Los Angeles County.

The whole day was a wonderful celebration. Watching able-bodied young adults selflessly share their hands, hearts and fine motor skills with children they had never even met is why the Very Special Arts Festival is my favorite holiday. Just like Christmas, Kwanzaa or Hanukkah, the Very Special Arts Festival reminds me of my parents, who made volunteerism the center of their lives.

I grew up with my brother Phillip, who is autistic and nonverbal, and our parents raised me to be his voice. Our mother was an artist, and she and my father extended themselves to volunteering and activism for people with special needs. My mother’s artistic ability rubbed off on both her children. Phillip and I collaborate on needlepoints at his group home at New Horizons in North Hills, California. He especially loves creating art in his day program at Tierra del Sol Foundation, a school for individuals with disabilities in Sunland, California.

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 and young adults. There are endless benefits to raising children with a spirit of volunteerism: making a positive difference in the lives of others; the realization that no matter how young or small, everyone 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.

After the festival was over, and everyone cleaned up, exhausted and drained from the sheer exuberance and adrenaline expended, I walked away with a full heart. I was proud of Jonaton, Aliah, Ana and Mayra for their positive attitude and hard work.

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. With the holiday season upon us, there is no greater gift to give one’s children than the opportunity to help others.

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


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