Program for Artisans with Disabilities Makes the Holidays Meaningful

ALEXANDRIA, VA–Coletta Collections, an artisan program for people with disabilities, is helping Alexandrians celebrate the holidays safely and sincerely. An employment derivative of St. Coletta of Greater Washington, a learning and engagement program for people with disabilities, Coletta Collections provides not only a creative outlet for its members, but also a legitimate opportunity to gain real work experience. The day program, located between Duke and Prince streets, hosts around 100 artisans who produce original designs with genuine meaning.

St. Coletta started as a private Catholic school in 1959 in Arlington. In 1993, Sharon Raimo, current CEO, took over and moved it to Alexandria. In 2004, St. Coletta started branching out with the programs it offers. Their “Fun With Glass” program, a fused glass art class, became popular among its students. So much so that in 2011, St. Coletta started a program called Coletta Collections, in which members of St. Coletta could become artisans, creating artwork of all kinds, from fused glass, to knit scarves, to crochet pumpkin sets for the holidays.

“This art program teaches them life skills, things you need to succeed,” says Rebecca Hill, Chief Development Officer at St. Coletta of Greater Washington. “Everybody wants them to work, but no one wants to hire them. This is a real job. They get paid, and we adjust it to their needs. It is all about what they can do.”

Coletta Collections is a very individual-oriented program, accommodating each artisan’s wants and needs. Some might prefer quiet and calming weaving while some enjoy fused glass, or some might prefer one color over another.

“We try to make it a large part for them because we don’t want to do pretend work,” states Rebecca. “What we’re trying to find are things that sell and things that they can make. This is real world work with real meaning.”

That meaning is not lost on Coletta Collections’ customers. One customer writes, “These earrings were so much more impactful and meaningful than jewelry from a mainstream chain store.” (https://www.colettacollections.com/)

Some of Coletta Collections’ most popular products include their holiday items, like their fall crochet pumpkin sets and their fused glass holiday plates, and their accessories, like their hand-woven scarves and hand-crafted jewelry. As spring time approaches, Rebecca and the artisans have plans to make products for outdoor living and activities.

Coletta Collections is gradually welcoming its artisans back to its studio for weaving.

Coletta Collections’ mission is all about accommodation and collaboration. Rebecca states they stand for “seeing possibilities beyond disabilities, and meeting the disabled where they are.” Coletta Collections has had to be exceptionally accommodating this year. After sending everyone in the program home due to the pandemic, Rebecca and other administrators began brainstorming, “How can we make this work?”

They have made it work in a few ways. They had to change their entire approach to teaching and supervising. No more hands-on teaching or in-person classes.

Coletta Collections had to close its studio, eliminating access to certain artistic materials, like the loom.

Instead, Rebecca and colleagues created artisan kits, providing the artisans with all the materials they would need to continue working successfully and safely from home. Prioritizing holiday products, Rebecca found they could keep going. “We had to change some things, but we just adjust. We’re good at adjusting.”

Work kits ensured the artisans could keep working safely through pandemic related shut downs.

Currently selling products strictly online, Coletta Collections is powering through the pandemic. Rebecca explains, “Normally, we are out and about in Alexandria. We have very loyal customers in Alexandria, but we sell online all across the U.S.”

Typically, the artisans attend local craft fairs, where they would not only sell their designs, but also socialize. “They want to go out and keep up with their friends,” says Rebecca of the artisans. “They miss their community. Everyone wants to keep learning, so we help them remain involved with the community any way we can right now.”

Gradually, St. Coletta is welcoming its artisans back through its doors while strictly abiding by social-distancing guidelines. “It is all about who wants to come back and who feels comfortable coming back,” Rebecca explains. “We’re trying to prepare for all eventualities. We think we will be fine. We’re determined. It serves a need that’s unmet in the community, so we’ve got to keep this going.”

Coletta Collections is implementing social distancing guidelines to ensure a slow and steady re-opening of the studio.

All members of Coletta Collections are having to get creative, but they know their customers will always show support, and that the studio will be there when they return.

“We don’t want our gifts to be just stuff,” affirms Rebecca. “We want to provide gifts with a meaning.” Regardless of where these gifts are made, the love and effort the artisans put into them is impossible to ignore.

Shop their holiday designs at https://www.colettacollections.com.