Temecula’s pilot special needs Visual Arts Program drawing praise

The City of Temecula’s pilot Visual Arts Program for special needs adults is drawing praise from participants and their families.

“I think it’s absolutely fantastic,” said Marlene Wilcox, whose daughter Samantha Wilcox, 28, was one of 19 students in the unique program. “My daughter has grown in so many ways.”

The Wilcoxes and about 50 other people attended a “Meet the Artist” evening reception for students on June 13 at the Merc Gallery in Temecula. The students celebrated completing the 18-week program with family and friends and publicly showcased their artwork. 

Temecula Council Member Mike Naggar wasn’t at the reception but later released a statement saying that he’s proud the city offers programs that give young people creative outlets and opportunities to express themselves and build confidence. 

“These types of programs are integral to self-expression and particularly valuable to youth with special needs,” Naggar stated.

The city’s Inclusion Services Specialist Yvette Martinez explained that the program was offered because art is not only fun, but therapeutic. It benefited special needs adults by promoting inclusion, fostering socialization, encouraging friendships and building confidence.

She added that it was so successful that the city wants to offer it again but hasn’t determined dates yet.

Riverside resident MarkAllen Gonzales, 35, instructed the program. He has a degree in visual arts and previously worked as an assistant art director at Cal Baptist University and academic advisor at Riverside Community College. He also received inclusion training from the city to teach the program and has a 5-year-old son with special needs. 

Gonzales said students’ projects included drawing, acrylic painting, paper mache, and photography. The program was held at the Mary Phillips Senior Center on Thursday afternoons from January 16 to May 15. It cost students $20 and covered all supplies.

“I really was amazed with the skills and creativity that some of the students have,” Gonzales said. “I also learned that teaching art had a greater impact on their lives than I realized it would and feel honored to be a part of the process and their lives.”

Marlene Wilcox lauded Gonzales. “He genuinely cares about the students and helps them reach their potential,” she commented. 

“I like my teacher. He’s a good teacher,” said Candice Ahonen, 33, of Temecula. During the reception she happily showed her artwork displayed on a gallery wall. “It’s a collage,” she said. It’s about what I like.”  

The collage depicts flowers, singer Taylor Swift, and her favorite color purple. Ahonen wants to continue taking art lessons.

Steven Martinez, 23, of Corona was another student in the program. He attends Riverside Community College as a fine arts major and enjoyed the class. He said he got to “meet new people, have fun and help others” while creating art. 

Steven Martinez also participates in the Global Citizens Viticulture/Hospitality Vocational Program, which the city has recently extended for the next fiscal year. Its goal is to prepare special needs adults with skills to work in wineries or the hospitality industry. It successfully completed its first spring quarter and will resume in the fall.

In the interim, the city is offering viticulture/hospitality students computer and job preparedness training in July. The program is a partnership with Spero Vineyards, which is owned by Mark Woodsmall and located in Temecula Valley Wine Country.

For more information about the city’s special needs programs, call Yvette Martinez at (951) 694-6480.

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