Belfast Creative Coalition Member Profile by Julia Clapp
Lisa Cohn’s office in the Waterfall Arts building in Belfast is beautiful – colorful and light, with circles of fabric hanging above the main table, big cheerful polka dots. This fabric, Lisa tells me, is not purely decorative; rather, the circles are there to shield the office from the direct fluorescent lights. This is an accommodation for students entering who are sensitive to the flicker and hum of the light bulbs. Sitting around the table, Lisa, an art therapist, Jennifer Pierce, and Linda Lee show me the artwork of one of their participants, Tiger, who is also Linda’s son.
Lisa Cohn and Linda Lee are part of a group of parents of special needs young adults and devoted local community members who have formed the non profit Jonno’s Place. The name of Jonno’s Place honors Jonathan “Jonno” Grinstein-Camacho, a 27-year old man with autism who tragically died in 2015 due to exposure. (Read more about the origins of Jonno’s Place and about Jonno at the Bangor Daily News here.) The website for Jonno’s Place describes it as an “initiative where people of all abilities can come together, fit in, and thrive, in a celebration of life through supportive relationships, meaningful work, and recreation for the mutual benefit of all, while at the same time integrating into the community at large.” Their plans are big: Jonno’s Place will one day be a community where people with special needs and neuro-typical people (those who are not considered to have special needs) can live, work, and create together.
Currently, Jonno’s Place provides an art circle for young adults. This program takes place at the Belfast Area High School, and allows participants with special needs to make art alongside non-special needs high school students. Ultimately, Jonno’s Place hopes to expand its art-making programs to include culinary arts and woodworking groups, too. “Everyone deserves the opportunity to participate,” says Linda. “You have to make an environment that makes (everyone) feel safe.” Jonno’s Place won’t have adaptations for those with special needs – the goal, rather, is that no space will need to be adapted. It will be designed from the first to be suitable and inclusive for all. “We’re not serving them,” she tells me. “We’re all in this together.”
The plan for the Jonno’s Place community is based on the Camphill model. Camphill villages are living communities designed to allow people with special needs to live and work alongside people without; the Camphill Village in Copake, New York (which is a particularly strong influence on Lisa and Linda’s idea of Jonno’s Place) describes itself on its website: “Instead of isolation and institutionalization, exclusion and separation, Camphill Village celebrates and honors the uniqueness, dignity and spiritual integrity of each individual, regardless of outward appearance or disability.” There is no Camphill community in Maine; Jonno’s Place hopes to answer that same need and uphold the same principles.
Jonno’s Place already has property for the community – acreage in east Belfast, near the Fireside Inn – and they already have a barn, donated to their organization, which they will use as their community center. The barn was disassembled at its previous location, and now waits in storage to be rebuilt at its new home. Linda and Lisa envision the barn as an events center, art space, café, and place where young participants can train as cooks. On the property, Jonno’s Place will also have residences – possibly tiny houses, depending on how the project evolves – and while all of these developments are still in the planning stages, Lisa and Linda are actively moving forward, and are in communication with the city of Belfast about the building of Jonno’s Place. “The city has been amazing to work with,” says Linda, noting that Jonno’s Place works closely with the City to comply with all zoning and planning regulations. Jonno’s Place also works collaboratively with the University of Maine, Hutchinson Center and the Waldo County Technical Center.
Tiger, Linda’s son, is one of the members of the Jonno’s Place art circle, where he works on drawings in his preferred style and medium – pencil and marker illustrations, often in a comic book format – while also branching out into other techniques. The characters he draws are often from popular culture – Moana, Scooby-Doo, Robin (of Batman and-) – and he draws them without any reference images to work from. He is a young artist and a highly talented one.
The day before I met with Linda and Lisa at their office, I had the chance to sit in on the art circle in action. The participants were making felted images, and since Tiger was there he took some time to show me more of his work. He writes books that his illustrations accompany, and he also creates digital art. I get to view more of his work at Lisa’s office. “You have to give kids an environment where their talents can swell,” says Linda. Tiger also participates in art classes at the Belfast Area High School and at the Waldo County Vocational School. “He makes everyone want to be a better person. Every one of the kids will remember Tiger as a great artist…he has a huge impact on the school.”
Tiger is not the only Jonno’s Place participant making a positive mark on his community. James, another participant, has recently become a junior firefighter with the Northport Fire Department. James has autism, and while at first the department had some concerns about what to expect in working with him, James has proven to be a talented and devoted member of the team. “We all make presumptions about what people can and can’t do,” says Linda. “James’ story blows that idea out of the water.” Seeing James’ strong work ethic, she tells me, “(makes) the other teen – and adult – firefighters try harder.” (Watch a video from Belfast Community TV about James’ work with the Northport Fire Department here).
“There are so many stories like that,” says Linda. “(But) there aren’t a lot of job opportunities for people with special needs.” Linda observes that there is a major shortage in the Belfast area of workers, who are badly needed in restaurants and other businesses. And she believes that, if given the opportunity, people with autism and other special needs can fill those positions. “People just don’t know what part they could play,” she says. “These kids have a lot of value to the community, but they’ve been shoved away.”
And employing people like James is mutually beneficial. Everyone wants purpose, and as Jennifer – who runs Jonno’s Place’s web presence and social media – observes, “If people don’t have meaning in their life, they’re prone to depression, just like everyone else.”
Lisa adds that people working together “normalizes difference…(and) we can do it through art.”
Jonno’s Place also intends to serve as a model for other communities. “This will be replicable by other people,” says Linda. Jonno’s Place, and communities like it, will be “a truly integrated setting” that will include neuro-typical people of all ages as well. Lisa and Linda also intend for it to be financially accessible to all. “We want anyone, regardless of ability to pay, to be here,” Linda says. Finally, Jonno’s Place means to offer support and guidance to the whole family, focusing on the supporters and caregivers of people with special needs, too. “We want to have a support group that involves parents,” says Lisa, adding that she envisions parents and their children making art side-by-side. “People don’t think to sit down and make a project together,” she says. Jonno’s Place will provide that opportunity.
Living and creating together is what Jonno’s Place is all about, and every resident and participant will be integrated and valued there. Using Tiger as her example, Linda says, “(Here is) a human soul, that has a tremendous ability to make us all more human.”
Learn more about Jonno’s Place at https://jonnosplace.org/