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About the Program

Photo by Tom Topinka



In 2011, Erin Thomas-Foley, SPARC’s Senior Director of Education, shared a vision for a new, uniquely inclusive arts education program. Her vision was inspired by many years of teaching theater classes, in which she would witness young people with developmental disabilities work hard to become better performers, only to lack opportunities for major performance experiences. She also had seen that typically developing youth sometimes felt afraid and awkward in forming relationships with their peers with disabilities, and young performers often are not encouraged to see their craft through the broader lens of social good.

Determined to change both of these issues, Erin imagined an inclusive arts education program that would build performing skills, deepen young people’s ability to accept and connect with each other, and strengthen the personal foundation of each student.


Our LIVE ART classes include students of all abilities with a dedication to ensuring that each class has equal numbers of students with and without disabilities. Each class has a team of specialists supporting our students. Teaching artists, special educators, interpreters, and sighted guides work together to teach arts education skills and to facilitate social opportunities. Our program focuses on individualized support to help our students be successful in the classroom, on stage, and beyond. There is no tuition for LIVE ART and no student has ever been denied access because of an inability to pay the activity fee.


In our LIVE ART classes, students with a range of disabilities work alongside their typically developing peers in a variety of visual and performing arts classes for nine months. They rehearse while building relationships and understanding of one another using SPARC’s unique ACESM (acceptance, compassion, and empathy) curriculum. 

The program offers eight weekly, one hour classes taught by teams made up of 50 professional teaching artists, arts educators, and special educators. Each class provides a unique combination of artforms, including, but not limited to, dance, visual art, singing, American sign language, spoken word, theatrical techniques and live music!


LIVE ART has the most qualified, professional teaching artists, arts educators and special educators in the Richmond community. Our student focused faculty are composed of compassionate artists and educators working together to provide inclusive arts training. Students increase their knowledge of the arts through social and emotional learning and apply their skills in front of a live audience in a once in a lifetime performance. Through our ACESM curriculum student’s expand their self-awareness, awareness of others, range of emotional contact, physical self-control, and empathy. Together we call ourselves the LIVE ART Family.


The LIVE ART experience begins on the first day of class each fall. Young people with different abilities, school environments, learning styles, genders, races, and ages walk into a performing arts studio where they are welcomed, accepted, honored, and loved. From the first day, students learn the importance of eye contact, acceptance of one another, and verbal and non-verbal encouragement, all of which foster friendship and trust between students who otherwise may not even meet, let alone get to know and love one another.

Through exploration of artistic disciplines, LIVE ART stimulates social and emotional learning, fostering peer groups that accept each student exactly as they are. And through LIVE ART, young people of all abilities thrive.

“Miracles happen [at SPARC] every single day. We entered the LIVE ART program just hoping my daughter could make one significant connection, and we are so pleased the most significant connection she made was with herself! She has gained self-confidence and an appreciation for her abilities, which she has never had before. Every single class provides my daughter with opportunities to frame herself in ways the rest of the world refuses to allow.”
<align=”right”>– LIVE ART parent</align=”right”>

According to rigorous educational assessment reports by specialist Dr. Amy Corning:
“The ACE (Acceptance, Compassion, and Empathy) curriculum has now been implemented during three LIVE ART sessions. Eighty percent of parents reported noticing some effects of the curriculum their child’s behavior or conversation. Parents’ comments make clear that the ACE values and inclusive atmosphere of LIVE ART are a sustaining resource for their children. They also described – often with evident pride – students’ gains in ability to recognize situations when others might need acceptance, compassion, or empathy, and to take action by offering a kind word or gesture.

“When asked to report on the degree of influence LIVE ART had had on their child, a total of 88% thought that the program had had a ‘profound’ (64%) or ‘considerable’ (24%) influence. In addition, 94% saw evidence that LIVE ART had brought about a lasting difference in their child’s life outside the program. Most often cited were social-emotional gains, especially increased confidence, a sense of empowerment, dedication or willingness to persevere, and greater empathy. Parents also noted new career interests involving the arts, work with people with disabilities, or American Sign Language.”

Know a student that would be interested in participating in LIVE ART?

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