An inclusive Peterborough-based non-profit initiative is showcasing the creative talents of young adults with intellectual exceptionalities — allowing budding artists to hone their skills and strengthen their independence while gaining experience in a workplace setting.
Hearts 4 Joy, a volunteer-run collective that recently became incorporated as a skill-building not-for-profit organization, meets three times a week in president Norma Christensen’s backyard, where members aged 21 and older come together to create unique hand-painted gift items.
The collective, which currently includes nine creatives with Down syndrome and other intellectual exceptionalities, formed about three months ago.
It’s run by a group of local parents — including Christensen, creative leader Sharon Crane, treasurer Irene Pyle and secretary Deb Quinlan — who set out to give their children, and other young people with intellectual exceptionalities, a way of connecting with their community in a creative and meaningful way.
“We realized there’s quite a gap in services in Peterborough and elsewhere for them to learn employment skills and how one behaves in the workplace. After people with intellectual exceptionalities turn 21, there’s not a lot there for them in terms of giving them that sense of having a job and going to work,” Christensen said.
This summer, the collective produced seasonal “joy lanterns” — made from mason jars — and decorated wine glasses.
For the upcoming fall and holiday season, Hearts 4 Joy members are working on hand-made pumpkin creations and Santa Claus-themed cookie plates.
The young artists initially sold their one-of-a-kind creations to family and friends. Now, with a stocked-up inventory in place, the co-operative plans to sell works to the community at large. Proceeds from the sales will go toward artists’ pay and will help cover operational costs.
On Sunday, Hearts 4 Joy is formally launching with a private ribbon-cutting ceremony in Selwyn. It’s the start of big dreams for the new non-profit, said Christensen.
Hearts 4 Joy hopes to expand to include new members and, eventually, a new, permanent indoor space to create during the winter months. Christensen and fellow volunteers are currently limiting the number of members to nine to follow COVID-19 protocols.
“Our launch is about showing the community the abilities of these individuals who are incredibly creative. They’ve really formed bonds with each other, and they consider this their jobs — they’re going to work,” she said. “We want the community to see them and what they’re doing.”
With the motto “from our hands to your hearts,” Christensen said the initiative is providing young artists an outlet to collaborate and express themselves creatively — improving the mental health of individuals who’ve been isolated during the pandemic. It’s also instilling in members comradery and a “sense of purpose,” she said.
“One member was talking about how lonely he had been. But now he said ‘I have my Hearts 4 Joy family. So I’m not lonely.’ That really spoke to us more than anything. They love coming to work,” Christensen said.
Christensen’s son Derek is a member of Hearts 4 Joy. It’s rewarding to see him and other artists create together, she said.
“It just makes my heart happy. I watch them and I feel youthful again,” Christensen said.
By establishing an inclusive cooperative for young creatives with various intellectual exceptionalities, Christensen hopes Hearts 4 Joy will set an example.
“We want to make Peterborough a beacon so that other communities can look at their own young people and do something similar.”
Brendan Burke is a staff reporter at the Examiner, based in Peterborough. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative.
Brendan Burke, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Peterborough Examiner