After opening in a mill building in Pawtucket in 2004, RHD-RI quickly became a beacon in the local arts community. Artists with developmental disabilities used the space to work on their pieces, write music and discuss ideas. Creativity ran rampant throughout each room. The organization moved to a second mill building in Pawtucket in 2014 and then to a facility in Cranston in 2019 before closing their doors for good on September 30, devastating individuals, but leaving a positive lasting legacy.
RHD-RI’s demise was brought about by years of being underfunded by the state, which is a challenge many day programs face. The underfunding led to staff shortages, and it forced management to scramble to use their limited resources to provide quality services. COVID-19, which left them closed for months, sealed their fate. I spoke with many of the individuals impacted by the program, and this is what they had to say:
“RHD to me stood for a creative environment for people to express their feelings,” said Amy-Eva DeCosta. “I have seen people who live with a disability create something dark only to have staff suggest adding glitter (or other happy elements). RHD encouraged people to express happy and sad feelings through art.”
It was impossible to fit RHD-RI into a category, and they embraced the “outsider” mentality. Many staff members came from the local punk and alternative scene (including members of well-known RI bands), and RHD-RI served as a place where everyone fit in even though the outside world didn’t quite understand them.
“RHD-RI was a place where everyone felt they belonged and could be themselves,” Jess Angelone said. “It was always filled with creativity and love.”
“I liked the art shows,” participant Rikki Demelo said of the various showcases where artists could sell their work, including RHD-RI’s annual Bizarre Bazaar. Pieces from RHD-RI artists have been sold throughout the country. Some artists’ work will continue to be on display at the Outsider Collective in Pawtucket.
“I would not trade my four years there for anything,” Josh Hurst said about his time at RHD. “Those years taught me to be a kinder, more outgoing, patient person. I also learned more about art and music in four years than in my previous 42 years.”
“The 5-plus years I spent as an employee gave me new ideas and perspectives on what it what it means to collaborate, create, care for and contribute to a community,” Melanie Fuest said. “Being a part of something bigger than myself to fight for.”
At its peak, RHD-RI served between 100 and 125 individuals in day- and community-supports. It provided an opportunity for people to create, express, discover and have fun through their own unique artistic vision. They’d showcase their talents at art galleries, craft fairs, concerts, self-produced plays and any other place that would have them, all with impressive results and smiling faces. RHD-RI was the model program in RI.
“Everyone was in the right place at the right time and the result was something greater than its parts,” Ray Memery reminisced. “People found purpose and identity in the art. Some created a legacy. We worked hard and the work was good. There was an undeniable sense of possibility there. You could feel it when you walked in the door.”
It’s important to remember how RHD-RI existed instead of how it ended. In this time of uncertainty for all those involved, it is okay to be angry and anxious about the future, but it’s crucial to remember the positive impact that they had on their community, the art world and each other.
“I think RHD-RI’s legacy is the overwhelmingly positive role we were able to play in the lives of the individuals we were entrusted to support,” Mark Stone commented. “I’d like to think that most of our participants and their families/residential providers feel similarly.”
“I will look back on my 13 years there with great admiration for those who I worked for and with,” Aaron Leidecker said. “They can shut us down, but they can’t shut us out. We will always be RHD-RI family. Everyone still has magic to share.”