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CATA: Making an Impact 30 Years and Counting
By Sabrina Damms, iBerkshires Staff
05:02PM / Monday, April 01, 2024
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Dan Waite performs with CATA's Shakespeare's Players. The nonprofit is will be able to expand its efforts in the community with a $2 million grant it was recently awarded.

Sam Guy taps into his talents in a CATA sculpture workshop

Jessica Hansen performs with CATA's Moving Company dance ensemble.

Grace Boucher poses with her painting at a CATA exhibit at the Clark Art Institute. The nonprofit holds more than 2,000 workshops a year and increased the number of participants it by 25 percent.
GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — An idea to encourage artistic opportunities for people with disabilities that began in Sandy Newman's living room 30 years ago is now a successful showcase for them tell their stories through a wide range of media and performance.
Community Access to the Arts began in 1993 with a textile class led by Newman that served 12 women from the Riverbrook Residence. It now serves about 950 people, who display their art through public events, including exhibits, performances, and more. In 2023, CATA held 2,285 art workshops.
Thanks to a $2 million grant from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott's foundation Yield Giving, CATA is aiming to expand these efforts even further. 
For too long we have been living in a world where people with developmental and intellectual disabilities are not given their due, CATA Executive Director Margaret Keller said. 
"They did not have the opportunities to express themselves and to take their place publicly in community life and so many people did not have the opportunity to, perhaps live or work, or go to school alongside people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, and so they miss that opportunity to truly see the challenge for people with disabilities and to truly build inclusion," she said. 
"I think what CATA is doing is that we are drawing attention to all of the talents and abilities of our CATA artists in a way that is engaging the broader community and welcoming them into that world so that they can witness a perspective that they might not have ever encountered before. And they can have that 'aha' moment that leads them to think differently about disability and to embrace a more inclusive understanding of community."
The weekly art workshops CATA holds allow its artists to explore new talents and hone their craft in various mediums, such as dance, painting, writing and theater. 
The Yield Giving grant was open to any organization in the United States with a budget between $1 million and $5 million. CATA is one of only 361 organizations nationwide chosen to receive the award, from more than 6,300 organizations that submitted applications. It was one of only 18 organizations selected in the state and the only one in Berkshire County.
Scott, an award-winning novelist and former wife of Jeffrey Bezos, has pledged to give away most of her billions earned from Amazon, which she helped to found. In this latest open call for applications, she donated about $640 million to 361 nonprofits, doubling the announced $1 million awards for 279 of them. 
"[Each of the nonprofits were] elevated by peer organizations and a round-2 evaluation panel for their outstanding work advancing the voices and opportunities of individuals and families of meager or modest means, and groups who have met with discrimination and other systemic obstacles," Scott said in announcing the results.
"Grateful to Lever for Change and everyone on the evaluation and implementation teams for their roles in creating this pathway to support for people working to improve access to foundational resources in their communities. They are vital agents of change."
One of the single most important criteria for the grant, as CATA understood it, was a community-based organization that was having a "meaningful impact on the well-being of people in their community," Keller said. 
"And in our grant application, we worked to tell CATA's story and to share our community-based model and to share the impact on our artists and on our community." 
CATA looks at impact in a twofold way — what impact it is having on people with developmental and intellectual disabilities and what impact they are having on the broader community.  
"How are we creating a more inclusive community that recognizes and embraces the talents of all of its members," she explained. 
The organization collaborates with community partners, including schools, day-habilitation programs, social service and disability agencies, to reach as many people with disabilities and provide as many opportunities to show their perspective as they can. 
"We hear every day from CATA artists, from families and caregivers, and program partners that CATA programs impact every dimension of our artists lives. When we look at the impact of our work, what we think about is how people with developmental and intellectual disabilities deserve opportunities to thrive," Keller said. 
"They have so much to say about how they see the world and in our programs we see that CATA artists have the profound experience of seeing 'this is who I am,' through so many different art forms."
CATA artists participate in various artforms including painting, dance, acting and music, and poetry, and "we as community members, have the profound experience of witnessing their art and seeing a perspective that we might not have encountered before," Keller said. 
CATA's application was amongst the highest scoring in the application pool, which led to the doubling of its grant to $2 million.
"We knew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We had no idea that there might be a possibility that the panel, and the grantors would consider doubling the award," Keller said. "That was a thrilling surprise and I will tell you that this is an extraordinary moment for an organization that began 30 years ago in our founder, Sandra Newman's, living room."
Keller said she had to read the foundation's initial email three or four times because she could not believe it. She went to tell the board President Heather Wells Heim the news and they both burst into tears.
CATA will be using the funds to further expand its efforts and meet the unmet needs in the community through its CATA for All Capital Campaign. 
"We know that there is unmet need in our rural community, especially for children and young people with special needs and also for people with disabilities who are struggling financially and who need and deserve access to the arts," Keller said.
Over the next few months, CATA will be working on a case for support and a campaign feasibility study so it can strategically determine how to frame this campaign for the community. Details will be shared with the community when it comes into focus.
"We approach growth in a way that is deeply strategic, but also community based. We are we really turned to our program partners and to our families to hear directly from them about the needs and the interests and the challenges of people with disabilities in our community," Keller said. 
CATA turns to its program partners, families, and artists to hear directly from them the needs, interests, and challenges for people with disabilities in the community, she said.
"Our remarkable growth over the last few years has really been spurred at every turn by what they are sharing with us, what they're telling us about what they need, and that is our plans for the future, too," Keller said. 
CATA has developed an "innovative and very community centered model" through its strong partnerships with 55 organizations in the community, families, and artists. 
"Our entire model for our programs is rooted in these relationships and in being responsive to the needs and the interests of our CATA artists. So, as we look to the future, we are looking directly to our community to help guide our growth path," Keller said. 
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