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Breaking down barriers

Lifestyle/Technology | Gifted Hands volunteers use art to share God's love with those suffering from the "leprosy of modern times"

Issue: "Save the unions," Oct. 24, 2009

NEW YORK-Rivington House, a hulking red brick structure built in 1898 as an elementary school, is America's largest HIV/AIDS residential healthcare facility. On Monday evenings volunteers from Gifted Hands, a faith-based therapeutic arts program, lead art classes as part of the shelter's regular game night in Manhattan's Lower East Side. Working AIDS patients, the elderly, teen moms, and homeless men and women, they use art to break down barriers and to share God's love.

On one recent evening, Gifted Hands volunteers carrying shopping bags of craft materials and a handful of helium-filled balloons signed in at Rivington House's front desk. They showed their government-issued ID and headed up to the penthouse, where a large multipurpose room furnished with tables and chairs and a pool table awaited.

Dustee Hullinger, the founder and director of Gifted Hands, had prepared a craft meant to encourage creativity among shelter residents and open up conversation with volunteers. As the volunteers laid plastic tablecloths on the table, set craft kits at each place, and filled bowls with candy, residents began to wander in, some on foot and some in wheelchairs. Some of the residents look pretty healthy and will go home. Others live at the shelter permanently. Some are drug users and others are amputees, or on dialysis.

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Hullinger, a petite woman with a dancer's erect posture and expressive hands that she uses to illustrate her points, greeted regulars by name. Most headed straight to the tables where they began to fiddle with the ribbons, feathers, and beads that were part of that night's craft. It wasn't complicated and had few rules-and even those were meant to be broken. Residents passed tubes of rubber cement to each other. Some, like children, used way too much-and it's expensive, so volunteers tried to keep track of it. Design advice flowed freely.

Whenever a resident finished, Hullinger held up the finished project decorated with flourishes of feathers and yarn streamers and made an announcement to the whole room. "Lets give it up for [fill in the name], designer number [fill in the number]." Everyone clapped and cheered, and the residents beamed. Their reaction proves that Hullinger hit on something 15 years ago when Gifted Hands was born.

Back then she was a flight attendant who had to stop flying because of an injury. While she was recovering, she volunteered for a "peanut butter and jelly" club in Harlem: "In my broken condition, dragging one foot behind me and my arm (I was pretty messed up), I thought, you know what? I can make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and tell stories to kids about the Lord."

By the time the club started, Hullinger had healed further: "I asked the director if I could teach something in art or design. . . . So I just began teaching those things, and life skills, and doing a devotional. It wasn't about me going in and helping at all. It was about God showing me what can be done in a shelter where people are wounded, and broken, and depressed, and going through trauma, and burnt out of tenements, and kids selling everything their mom owned for drugs. . . . And at the end of eight weeks I thought, there's no way I can stop this program, and I began seeking funding. That was in 1993."

Since then Gifted Hands has birthed more programs modeled on that first one. The program often reaches people who aren't likely to go to church, although every participant receives an invitation to visit one. Hullinger explained: "They don't feel good enough. Their self-esteem is low. If they have an illness they feel they would be stigmatized. . . . We use the arts to make the connection so we can be salt and light in people's lives and begin to journey with them."

Gifted Hands also breaks down barriers for volunteers. Hullinger said that "volunteers come in on Monday night. . . . They watch and see. They experience, and they're not intimidated. . . . They can see how we work with people who have a disease that is sometimes looked upon as a leprosy of modern times. They see how we interact, and care for people, and earn the right to go there, to invite them to church or go out for coffee."

Bess Knox is a model who first heard about Gifted Hands four years ago through Hope for New York, a mercy ministry of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Now she and her husband Brandon, an actor, volunteer with a Gifted Hands program for young moms and their kids at an emergency shelter in Mid­town. Bess Knox explained why: "It's the opportunity for an everyday New Yorker like myself to be able to be a part of someone's life who needs me."

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