Artisans with Disabilities Make the Holidays Meaningful

Coletta Collections, an artisan program for people with disabilities, helps Alexandrians celebrate the holidays safely and sincerely.

(Photos: Rebecca Hill, St Coletta of Greater Washington)
Coletta Collections is slowly welcoming its artisans back into the studio.

Alexandria, VA – Coletta Collections, an artisan program for people with disabilities, helps Alexandrians celebrate the holidays safely and sincerely. An employment derivative of St. Coletta of Greater Washington, Coletta Collections provides a creative outlet for its members and 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 and crocheted pumpkin sets for the holidays.

Weaving is a favorite artistic activity.

“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 program oriented to the individual, accommodating each artisan’s wants and needs. Some might prefer quiet and calming weaving while some enjoy fused glass or 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 fall crocheted pumpkin sets and fused glass holiday plates, and accessories like hand-woven scarves and hand-crafted jewelry. As spring approaches, Rebecca and the artisans plan to make products for outdoor living and activities.

Coletta Collections sent holiday art kits to its artisans to continue their meaningful work.

Coletta Collections’ mission is about accommodation and collaboration. Rebecca says 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. First, they changed their approach to teaching and supervising. No more hands-on teaching or in-person classes. Instead, Rebecca and colleagues created kits providing the artisans with all the materials they would need to continue working from home. Prioritizing holiday products, Rebecca found they could keep going. “We had to change some things, but we adjusted. We’re good at adjusting.”

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

In normal times, the artisans attend local craft fairs, where they sell their designs and also socialize. “They want to go out and keep up with their friends,” says Rebecca. “They miss their community. Everyone wants to keep learning, so we help them remain involved with the community any way we can right now.”

Coletta Collections has had to close its studio and some of its looms due to the pandemic.

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 says. “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.”

All Coletta Collections members have 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,” Rebecca says. “We want to provide gifts that have meaning.” Regardless of where these gifts are made, the love and effort the artisans put into them are impossible to ignore. Shop their holiday designs at https://www.colettacollections.com.

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