Matthew Perry, co-founder and director of the Vermont Arts Exchange, standing at lower right, makes a presentation about his program’s work with
Matthew Perry, co-founder and director of the Vermont Arts Exchange, standing at lower right, makes a presentation about his program's work with veterans to the Vermont Veterans Home Board of Trustees on Feb. 12. (Mark Rondeau)

BENNINGTON -- An arts program conducted by the Vermont Arts Exchange at the Vermont Veterans' Home will again be funded through the end of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Matthew Perry, co-founder and executive director of the VAE, gave a presentation on the program at the Feb. 12 Board of Trustees meeting at the home.

First, he thanked officials and particularly home staff for years of support. "But beyond that, it's just a real honor to be here and to be working with the veterans," he said. "We're speaking to you today for two reasons. One, the possible reality that after 20 years of working with the Veterans Home, residents, families, and staff, the arts program may be cut or deleted."

The second reason was to share "what we do and the importance of high-quality arts programming plays in the lives of veterans, families, and staff in hopes that the VAE will remain and grow the program," Perry said.

The VAE is based in North Bennington and its mission is to "bring the arts to people of all ages, abilities and income," he said.

Perry said he first came to the home in 1989 to conduct the first class with veterans. The VAE was formed five years later, and has developed partnerships with such organizations as the Bennington School, United Counseling Services, Head Start, and many others.

"From there, VAE has grown into and been recognized as a regional and national community arts organization, with supports and praise from major foundations and funders throughout the nation," Perry said. "Through the expressive arts program here at Vermont Veterans' Home, residents and professional artists work together to create, dance, make music, sculpt, paint sing, draw, drum and write. In the visual arts program, each artist has developed their own style for formal expression and adopted a preferred medium.

"While working, many tell stories, some sing, tell jokes, family members visit, while others don't say a word. Whether they are writing a memoir, creating a dance, painting or drumming, it's clear that the arts are an empowering and healing force," Perry said. "Based in the dementia program, the arts can create a significant impact on the residents' quality of life, reaching residents with advanced dementia who would otherwise be difficult to connect with."

Perry quoted the words of one veteran: "I'm so glad that my hands can describe my thoughts."

The arts program also incorporates students from the Bennington School, which serves troubled youth.

"The students are trained and educated on specific methods of working with people with dementia and general caregiving tactics," Perry said. "Currently, six girls assist each week, and they're very helpful as much of the work requires one-on-one. In turns, the girls can get a lot out of the weekly visit. The students become the teachers as roles reverse and the young become empowered."

Asked how much the program costs, Perry answered, $187.50 per week. This includes $100 for two professional artists for two hours and $87.50 for the materials used and other expenses.

Funding has ranged from $9,000 in recent years to $12,000 per year in the past, he said.

Contacted Tuesday, Veterans' Home CEO Melissa Jackson said the arts programs would be funded for the rest of the fiscal year up to $10,000. As in the past, the funds do not come from the home's operating budget but from the trustees' endowment fund. She estimated that 20 percent of the home's residents participate in the arts program, 10 percent actively and 10 percent who watch.

"That's a marvelous program," Jackson said. We're fortunate to have it."

Similarly, at the trustees meeting, while noting that there had been discussion over the years about the number of residents participating in the program, Jackson said "it is not the quantity, it is the quality."

Also at the meeting, Trustee Chairman Joseph Krawczyk Jr. asked home staff members present what they thought of the arts program. The response from about eight staff members was overwhelmingly positive.

"I think it's a valuable program and I think that right now we're expanding it to the whole house," said Activity Director Michele Burgess. "It would be a very sad thing to see it go away. The Bennington School is coming; you see the kids sitting with the veterans and engaging with people that sometimes [are] non-engaged. I just don't think that you can put a monetary value on it."

Said Pat Crossman, nursing supervisor for the Alzheimer's/dementia unit, "I think for the majority of people that participate in the program, you do see them literally come alive. They go to sitting in the chair very quietly, up sitting up straight, and their artwork is just an expression of their feelings, you see it in their eyes. You can't let that go away, because they are telling us something."

Said Karen Divis, quality assurance director, "I think the drumming was absolutely fabulous. The artwork, every time I look at it, I see something different. ... It's a wonderful program."

Contact Mark Rondeau at mrondeau@benningtonbanner.com. Twitter: @banner_religion