Thirty Years of Enabling the Disabled Through Art


In 1982, Helen Dolas saw a need locally to provide developmentally-disabled adults with stimulation and growth opportunities through the arts, so she founded Arts & Services for the Disabled, Inc. Thirty years later there's still a need, a need she and her team work every day to satisfy.

"Because there wasn't anything like this in the community, and I saw a need," she says.

It's that simple for some people, people like Helena Dolas, founder and CEO of Arts & Services for the Disabled, Inc. (ASD). She saw a need, she took action. And 30 years later, she's still at it.

"I saw the power, benefit, and positive outcomes of music in people's lives," Dolas tells me of her pre-1982 work as a musical therapist. "And I have a passion for people with developmental disabilities, so I really wanted to see them envision a life in our community, which traditionally was not afforded to them. So I thought, 'Why not? Somebody's gotta do it.'"

The mission of the nonprofit ASD has not changed in its 30-year history: "to provide life-long learning, community service and career opportunities through the creative arts for people with disabilities in an environment of warmth, encouragement, and respect [by way of] arts-based education and therapy in the areas of communication, community inclusion, psycho-emotional development, positive and adaptive social behavior, and basic life skills."

More often than not one expects an organization like this to focus on children, but ASD serves only persons 18 and up.

"So it's when they transition out of the Long Beach Unified School District," Dolas says. "This is their next step into adult community living and their post-secondary education. […] We want to make sure that they have a place to come every day to be creative, to help improve their daily living skills, to acquire all the skills that they need to be fully integrated into society."

The skills ASD's clients obtain go beyond the making of music and visual art, extending out into the business world. ASD is home to two art galleries and a store (the Go! Store, which features handmade goods—shirts, hats, purses, ceramics, candles, scarves, etc.), which facilitate the display and sale of student work. Half of all proceeds go back into the ASD program to offset the costs of supplies, while the other half goes directly to the individual artists themselves.

One of those artists is Cristina Mariatta, 28. During the six years Mariatta has been part of the ASD family, she has sold multiple works. "I come [to ASD] every day," she says. "I love art!"


Dolas says the experience clients gain from creating and learning about art yields benefits far beyond the aesthetic realm.

"Where they typically haven't been able to learn or master things, they have been able to do so through the arts," she says. "So it opens up all kinds of doors for them."

ASD operates four separate locations, serving approximately 150 clients per day. Then there's the organization's outreach program, which Dolas estimates benefits 3,000 people annually.

That sort of service makes for financially tough sledding in the best weather, so Dolas politely laughs at me when I ask her whether the current economic climate has rained on ASD's parade.

"We're operating on a budget from 1984," she says. ""Expenses continue to go up—and the State is cutting. […] Our staff has had to take furloughs. They care a lot about the clients. They don't want to see the doors close, so they have put up with a lot of sacrifices."

Sponsors like drums/percussion manufacturer REMO help (a damn fine array of music-making supplies—some of which are turned into one-of-a-kind instruments by ASD clients and offered for sale—is just part of the generous amount of aid that company has provided to ASD), as does a grant from the Getty that allows ASD to maintain a year-round exhibit at the Health Dept. But fiscally speaking, things are tough all over.

Nonetheless, Dolas is all smiles as she address a room full of clients and supporters at ASD's 30th anniversary celebration, which coincided with the opening reception for See Through, her clients' latest exhibit (showing through November at the George V. Deneff Gallery at ASD's Long Beach location).

"The dream started with the realization that these people in the community needed a place to come and express themselves," she says. "It's a joy every day."

And not just for Dolas.

—Top photo: Arts & Services for the Disabled founder Helen Dolas. Bottom photo: Artist Cristina Mariatta points to one of her creations showcased in "See Through." Photos by Greggory Moore.

For more information about Arts & Services for the Disabled, Inc. (a private 501(c)3 organization), including how to purchase arts/crafts or otherwise make a donation, call 562.982.0252 or visit