It’s no secret that Nashville is bursting at the seams with creative energy. There’s no shortage of outlets, from music to visual arts, filmmaking, and more. However, these industries offer much more than an artistic outlet. In fact, studies show that participating in creative activities can lead to improved social skills, self-esteem, and communication — especially for individuals experiencing developmental and intellectual disabilities.
Nashvillian and entrepreneur Tom Woodard has seen these benefits firsthand through the On the Avenue program at Westwood Avenue. As the founder and managing partner of Westwood Avenue, Tom implemented this program to help individuals with disabilities embrace creativity, teaching them everything from how to build a website to how to write a book, make a movie, or record a podcast.
“Through our curriculum called ‘Individual Assignment Based Learning,’ we teach people how to do one of several things,” explains Tom. “During the course of that, our hope is that members can build confidence in community and start working.”
The phrase “build confidence in community” is the key to On the Avenue’s program at Westwood Avenue. Rather than having people in the program — referred to as “citizens” — sit at home alone while they learn new skills, On the Avenue encourages people to get out of the house, socialize with others, and immerse themselves in the Nashville community.
Today, the program at Westwood Avenue serves about 100 families and adults with disabilities in a 6,000-square-foot maker studio in Nashville’s Berry Hill neighborhood. “It’s a safe place where people can come and spend their days in an enjoyable manner, building social skills that they need in order to exist independently in life,” adds Tom.
Individual interests determine the skills that citizens focus on. For example, if a citizen is interested in baseball and wants to learn more about the podcasting industry, the On the Avenue program at Westwood Avenue can teach them how to make a podcast all about baseball. “The bottom line is that we give you an assignment based on a passion,” explains Tom. “We give you a medium based on something that you want to pursue. We marry those two [things] together, and that becomes your curriculum that you’re going to use to start creating things.”
In addition to creative activities, the citizens at Westwood Avenue also learn essential life skills, like how to drive, balance a checkbook, cook a meal at home, or live independently. Tom adds that these skills are often added to the curriculum of individuals who visit the organization more than one or two days a week.
“Westwood Avenue … [gives] individuals a day of confidence and a day of community that helps them lead a better life and leads to more independence,” says Tom. “We’ve had people who were non-verbal get on camera and talk. We’ve had people who have lived in small little closets and [other] people’s homes, who are now living independently in their own house. We’ve had people who didn’t ever use a computer now writing their own autobiographies.”
Since Westwood Avenue’s inception, the On the Avenue program has seen hundreds of success stories, but there are certainly a few that stand out to Tom. For example, one of Westwood Avenue’s citizens was the first diagnosed case of autism in Florida. The citizen wanted to learn how to use a computer, so Tom printed out the Preamble of the United States Constitution, taped it on a wall in front of a computer, and encouraged the man to type out the preamble three days a week for three months.
“I remember it was like Forrest Gump finishing his run,” recalls Tom. “The whole three months were spent in community. People were loving on him and talking to him … He looked up at us [one day] and said, ‘Y’all ain’t ready for my creativity.’ Nobody ever asked him to be creative, and it brought out this whole new personality in him; it brought out a whole new confidence. He started dressing differently when he came in and started interacting with people in a different manner. You just saw this huge uptick.”
When it comes to the future of Westwood Avenue and its On the Avenue program, Tom hopes to fill the remaining spots available at the Berry Hill location. He also has plans to hopefully expand to north Nashville and Hendersonville. There has also been talk about building housing, as transportation and independent living are key components for citizens of Westwood Avenue.
“The goal is to just get someone out of their home, get them out in the community, and figure out how to navigate that,” adds Tom. “There needs to be some care and loving hands around them. They can’t just go out into the big waters and do it on their own, so Westwood Avenue is their safe place to do it”.”
If you’d like to support the On the Avenue program at Westwood Avenue or learn more about its efforts, visit ontheavenue.net. You can also donate to the organization by visiting ontheavenuefoundation.org.
All photography courtesy of On the Avenue.
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