New nonprofit brings art to special needs community

Diversity Studio artists pose with a flowerpot craft they completed this summer. In the cooler months, Diversity Studio events are held at the Hood River Library, but in the spring and summer, participants come to the Sheppard family farm on Tucker Road.

Photo courtesy of Diversity Studio
Diversity Studio artists pose with a flowerpot craft they completed this summer. In the cooler months, Diversity Studio events are held at the Hood River Library, but in the spring and summer, participants come to the Sheppard family farm on Tucker Road.

Diversity Studio has been four years in the making — and is, like the art it creates with clients, a work in progress.


Artists in action: Diversity Studio participants at the Sheppard family farm this summer. Artists will attend the Nov. 10 fundraising event and will have pieces they’ve created available as part of the silent auction.

A 501c3 nonprofit as of Sept. 4, Diversity Studio connects the special needs community with art opportunities, said founder Toni Sheppard.

“The whole point of Diversity Studio is to take what everyone else takes for granted and make it free, so they can have the same opportunities,” Sheppard said, be that art projects or field trips.

Cutting out the cost factor means that anyone interested is able to participate.

“Something people don’t know is that (disabled persons) get services from the state, but they’re very limited on what they’re allowed to have outside of their services,” she said. This means “making sure they have food and a house, and nothing outside of that.”

The idea for such a nonprofit came in her last year at Oregon College of Art and Craft, when she received an assignment to create a business plan for a future venture.

“I decided to do a community art platform — and I discovered it would be really expensive and difficult,” she said.

So she put that plan aside. Sheppard moved to Hood River in 2014 and began working for Eastern Oregon Support Services Brokerage, a state-funded service that provides person-to-person services for disabled persons — for some, that includes a social outlet, while for others, it’s about transportation to doctor’s appointments or the grocery store.

Her husband, Ben, also works for EOSSB and, through work, the two became involved in the Special Olympics.

“We became the head coach for every single season’s sport, whether we knew how to play or not,” she said. But they noticed that each season lasted eight to 10 weeks — and not everyone is sports-minded, making participation somewhat limiting.

Toni went to school for metalsmithing and woodworking; Ben for theater. The two began to integrate art into their daily work at EOSB.

“The parents were like, ‘Why don’t you start a program? You’re doing this every day anyway,’” Sheppard said.

Thanks to the support of a few donors — both monetary and material — the Sheppards were able to start Diversity Studio classes last November and apply for nonprofit status. The very first class involved painting ornaments that she had turned out on her lathe. Another class involved making collages out of donated magazines.

They average eight to 10 artists per class, ranging in age from 14 to 65. Currently, classes are held each Saturday at the Hood River Library, as they will be throughout the fall and winter. Last spring and summer, events were held at the Sheppards’ farm. The library “has been super supportive” of the nonprofit, she said, allowing use of its downstairs meeting room.

“Long term, we would like to see a studio open in one of our barns,” said Sheppard. “To be successful and be a nonprofit, we have to take advantage of every asset we have. We have a great space (the farm) and the library has been a lifesaver.”

Those interested in seeing the program firsthand are invited to stop by the library and visit a class: Diversity Studio classes are listed on the library’s schedule, she said. So far, all advertising has been by word-of-mouth.

“Come in and meet our group. Bring whoever wants to come — I prep all the materials myself, but always prep five extra things to make sure everyone has the opportunity to make something,” she said.

Diversity Studio will host a fundraising event on Saturday, Nov. 10 at The Ruins (formerly Springhouse), 13 Railroad St., Hood River, with live music starting at 5 p.m.

There will be interactive instruments available for kids, a catered Italian-style meal with vegetarian, dairy-free and gluten-free options by 57 North, and a silent auction that includes pieces by Diversity Studio artists as well as gift certificates from local businesses and vacation packages — including a four day, three night stay at a lakeside cabin in North Idaho at Priest Lake that includes a pedicure, massage and lunch at a local resort, as well as kayak rentals.

“The majority of the auction items are experienced-based,” she said. Sheppard is offering a personal bookbinding class and Viking chain class.

“I want it to be about art as much as possible and promote local artists,” Sheppard said. “Without them, there’s not much of a program to offer — we need the support of other artists.”

Diversity Studio artists will also sell ornaments for donations, and Sheppard will give a presentation on how the nonprofit started and where they’d like it to go.

“We have a 2-year-old, a 40-hour a week job, and then we have this,” said Sheppard. “The outcome of the auction will determine what we can offer in the next six months.”

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