PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
January 30, 2007

Reaching Out Through the Arts

by Jim Newsom

MaryAnn Toboz had a dream—to use music and the arts to help people in need.

“I grew up in Washington, DC,” she told me recently, “and moved here in the early ‘90s. I was working for Alltel in PR before moving to Utah, playing music on the side with friends, not really interested in the bar things. I’d been playing guitar and singing for special needs audiences for a number of years.

“When we moved out to Utah, I worked with an organization called Heart and Soul, and that’s exactly what they were doing. At the same time I had a job at United Way, so I was getting some skills in the non-profit arena.

“When I came back here in 2000, I was working at Volunteer Hampton Roads and got more non-profit management background. I wanted to bring it here, and Heart and Soul was good enough to give us their articles and their by-laws and their blessings to come back and create this organization. It’s what they had done from Bread and Roses.”

Bread and Roses is the nationally known organization founded in San Francisco by Joan Baez’s sister, Mimi Farina, in 1974, to bring music and “live art” to institutionalized children and adults. Toboz had a similar vision when she decided to put together Tidewater Arts Outreach three years ago. Recruiting boardmembers, volunteers and financial supporters, she plunged head-first into the difficult process of creating a non-profit corporation, receiving a 501(c)(3) designation in May, 2004. Less than three years later, TAO is facilitating an impressive schedule of programs and performances.

“All of the people we serve are special needs populations,” she said. “It might be illness, or they’re old and frail; they might have a variety of disabilities, they might be homeless or in crisis, or youth in transition through the court system in and out of foster homes.

“We did poetry workshops with kids at Children’s Resources of Hampton Roads, and we did drumming workshops and a painting workshop there. We work with Transitions Shelter for victims of abuse on the Peninsula and Samaritan House down here. Those kinds of programs are a little more involved—you’re working with women who are victims of abuse and really trying to use the arts in a meaningful way to help them cope with their situation. We did visual journaling with women at Samaritan House.

“But one commonality, I think, is that you’re working with people through the arts to help them get in touch with their creativity so that they can deal with the significant challenges that they face. There are so many people in homeless shelters who don’t write because they never became comfortable with it. But they still have this need to express themselves. So we want to use the arts as a creative outlet, through singing or writing or art—you know, showing your emotions and taking control over some aspect of your life.”

As with most non-profit organizations, raising the funds necessary to provide programs and services is a constant challenge. In order to meet that challenge, Tidewater Arts Outreach has compiled a new CD featuring songs by thirteen of the best singer/songwriters in the region, called Special Ones. To celebrate its release, the Granby Theater is hosting a concert and party Saturday afternoon with a dream bill that includes all of the musicians on the disc. It will be a summit session of some of the area’s most popular players—Lewis McGehee, Julie Clark, Big Wide Grin, Jimmy Masters, Sonya Lorelle, Paddy Dougherty, Lawrence Lambert, Narissa Bond, Mary Lou Osterhous, Larry Berwald, Linda Nelson, Mercy Creek, Robbin Thompson and B. J. Liederman.

“We were thinking about a ‘Sunrise on Sunday’ type of CD,” Toboz said, “creating a mood, a Sunday morning thing. We thought it would be a nice CD for them to play in nursing homes.

“We asked each artist to give us a song about compassion and empathy. The name, Special Ones, is a Jimmy Masters song. The title spoke to who we’re working with. We have lots of artists who are folk and bluegrass, but we went for a more contemporary sound on this one.”

The party Saturday should be a highlight of the winter music season. But perhaps more important than the party is the work its proceeds will enable to continue.

“We’re bringing people in who have a talent” Toboz said, “and we’re engaging them with an audience that they might not have been engaged with. So it’s a new experience for them. And we’re bringing more community people to these special needs populations and trying to increase awareness for the needs of the populations.

“We’re helping the families and we’re helping the staffs in these places. You should see the staff at Holiday House—22 kids live there, all ages, who go to Portsmouth public schools. It’s a residential home for kids who are severely developmentally disabled; 95 percent of them are non-verbal, maybe 30 percent are in wheelchairs. Can you imagine what the staff deals with, day in and day out? We brought in Portsmouth school teachers over the holidays to do singalongs.

“We bring in something and totally change the mood of the place.”

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.