Expressions of a BraveHeart (also known as BraveHearts) is a fine arts program offering art, music, and dance classes to enhance the quality of life for preteens, youth, and young adults (11–21 years old) with moderate to severe disabilities. BraveHearts is a safe, respectful, and understanding setting where your family member can develop friendships, explore fine arts, and enhance self-esteem.
BraveHearts meets Monday evenings at the Opelika Sportsplex during spring and fall semesters for art, music, and dance classes. There is NO cost to participating families.
BraveHearts is a collaboration between the Auburn University Social Work Program and Opelika Parks and Recreation Department. The program is managed by 3 Auburn University Social Work faculty members and facilitated by approximately 70‐80 Auburn University students from a variety of majors. Volunteers complete orientation and are provided training throughout the semester.
Thanks to the Opelika Sportsplex for donating the space for Expressions of a BraveHeart.
As preteens, youth, and young adults with special needs, especially those with moderate to severe disabilities, grow and advance in school, their opportunities to integrate and participate in the community become more limited. Challenges often associated with moderate to severe disabilities include communication difficulties, sensory impairments, gross and fine motor skill limitations, and cognitive impairments. By age 11 or 12, many of those with moderate to severe disabilities spend most of their school days in "self-contained" classes, requiring a teacher and 1 or 2 teacher's aides to assist.
Unfortunately, there are few, if any, general school programs (music, theatre, etc), teams or clubs in junior high and high school which potential BraveHeart club members can be involved due to the intensity of supervision, attention and skill needed to provide meaningful and positive experiences. In addition, parents struggle to find programs and activities in the community that consistently address the teen’s psycho- social needs, abilities and strengths in a supportive and knowledgeable setting. Therefore, BraveHearts aims to provide consistent, supportive, structured activities that develop and reinforce friendships; allow preteens, youth and young adults with special needs to explore and develop their interests; and enhance their sense of belonging and accomplishment relative to the larger community in which they live.
Expressions of a BraveHeart is a comprehensive fine arts program offering art, music, and dance to youth and young adults (11-21 years old) who have special needs, primarily those with moderate to severe disabilities. The program aims to provide the preteens, teens, and young adults an opportunity to participate in an on-going arts enrichment program in a setting which supports the development and maintenance of positive peer interactions, relationships, and friendships. It also aims to provide experiences which assist college students in understanding the strengths, needs and abilities of individuals with special needs while enhancing the community’s current offerings for youth and young adults with moderate to severe disabilities. BraveHearts represents a model collaborative partnership between Auburn University and Opelika Parks and Recreation Department. It is designed as a multidisciplinary program which operates primarily through the AU social work program, university-wide service learning assignments, community volunteers, and a partnership with the Opelika Sportsplex therapeutic recreation program. In January 2011, BraveHearts was awarded the Alabama Recreation and Parks Association’s 2010 Innovative Program of the Year Award for cities with populations of 15,001 or more.
BraveHearts is held six nights in the fall and spring semester at the Opelika Sportsplex. The preteens, teens, and young adult club members select two of the three classes offered simultaneously during each meeting. They may choose to participate in art, music, or dance which is offered in two 30-minute class sessions. The classes have two teachers, including one teacher who has expertise in the specific discipline (art, music, or dance) and one teacher who has experience working effectively with special needs populations. In addition to the program sessions, every fall and spring a special performance and art exhibit is presented to family, friends and others in the community.
Each club member is matched with at least one primary coach, an undergraduate student, whose role is to facilitate maximum benefit through participation by providing one-on-one attention, support and encouragement based on individual needs. Most club members have two (or more as needed) student coaches in order to expand the attention, support, and provide stability in case of student volunteer absences. Although there are student volunteers from 19 university majors, the majority of the students participate to fulfill a service learning requirement in one of two core social work courses, Human Behavior and the Social Environment I and Practice Methods I. One of the primary goals of the BraveHearts program is to engage university students in a satisfying growth opportunity to expand their learning beyond the classroom.
Program GoalsOverall Program Goals for Club Members
- develop interests,
- increase independence,
- develop friendships,
- enhance self-esteem,
- increase self-determination capacity,
- develop creativity capacity, and
- enhance community involvement.
BraveHearts aims to:
- Increase hands-on exposure to fine arts;
- Increase personal appreciation of fine arts;
- Provide opportunities group participation;
- Provide opportunities for personal decision-making;
- Increase opportunities to interact/relate to others;
- Provide opportunities for goal achievement;
- Provide opportunities for making friends;
- Increase personal confidence; and
- Provide opportunities for personal creativity and expression.
- Increase comfort level around people with disabilities
- Increase willingness to engage in communication with people with disabilities
- Increase understanding of specific disabilities
- Increase desire to be an advocate for improved policies, programs, and services for people with disabilities
Expressions of a BraveHeart was developed by Associate Clinical Professor Angie Colvin Burque, LCSW, MSW. As a professor of social work and a concerned parent of two children, one with special needs, she was personally impacted by the gap in programmatic activities for preteens, youth, and young adults with special needs, especially those with moderate to severe disabilities. In addition to the lack of programmatic activity, Professor Burque noted the need for more complex training to increase understanding and sensitivity for helping professionals; specifically, those professionals who choose to serve families with individuals who have moderate to severe disabilities. Therefore, she developed BraveHearts with the following goals:
(1) to provide pre-teens and teens with special needs an opportunity to participate in an on-going arts enrichment program;
(2) to provide pre-teens and teens with special needs a setting which supports the development and maintenance of positive peer interactions, relationships, and friendships;
(3) to provide opportunities and experiences which assist college students in understanding the strengths, needs and abilities of pre-teens and teens with special needs; and,
(4) to provide an innovative, quality arts program that enhances the community’s current offerings provided to youth with special needs.
BraveHearts began in spring 2010 with 14 participants and 30 volunteers. To initially identify BraveHearts volunteer staff, the program was presented as a service learning and/or volunteer opportunity for Auburn University students. Students enrolled in the social work course Practice Methods I participated in BraveHearts to fulfill the course’s service learning requirement. Recruitment of other student volunteers was largely informal through announcements in social work and sociology courses as well as student-to student networking. In fall 2010, Dr. Danilea Werner joined the BraveHearts staff as the program was incorporated in a second social work course as a service learning assignment: Human Behavior in the Social Environment I. Each semester the number of AU students and BraveHeart Club Members has increased. In 11th season, fall 2015, BraveHearts included 34 club members and approximately 75 AU student volunteers. The volunteers represent a variety of majors including social work, psychology, pharmacy, human development and family studies, biomedical sciences, special education and rehabilitation, general education, nursing, engineering, physics, and forestry.