When Rhea Rajani saw her little sister Reena drawing on the walls out of anger, she didn't see an act of disobedience. Instead, she saw an opportunity to help. Her little sister was born with Down syndrome and seemed to resort to drawing pictures on the walls in red when she was frustrated or angry with her family.
But she wasn't just acting out, Rajani realized. Reena was trying to communicate with them and express her emotions through art.
With that in mind, two year ago, Rajani, now a senior at Alcuin Upper School in Dallas, created an art workshop program for developmentally disabled students. At the time, she was only a sophomore and started the program by herself. Since many sophomores at Alcuin create big projects, Rajani said all she had to do to get started was send a couple of emails and ask for some assistance from Alcuin’s art teacher.
The art workshop program consists of teaching a one-and-a-half-hour craft with an educational or therapeutic goal. She started by going into Reena’s classroom at Shepton High School. Her first project was snow globes, and the students were directed to create a snow globe that showcased what winter meant to them. Rajani described it as a “self-reflection” project to help the students express themselves.
Her sister's teacher thought Rajani's idea was amazing and started telling her teacher colleagues about it. And with that, Rajani's project made its way into other special education classes in Plano ISD.
“For them to get to do it and kind of learn history alongside with it is really interesting, and it kind of just makes me happy because they seem to enjoy it,” Rajani said.
Rajani coordinates with the teachers to carve out a time frame for her and a couple of other student helpers to come and do the workshop.
But Rajani’s art workshop didn’t skip a beat when COVID-19 hit — she made instructional videos for the students to watch from home and even added art history lessons to supplement the crafts. After moving her program online, three Plano ISD schools are now using it, including 16-year-old Reena's classroom.
“We usually have the materials and everything and give it to them, and we weren't there for in-person instruction, obviously, but we used recycled materials and stuff within the projects,” Rajani said. “And they were pretty simple to do at home without parents' help because a lot of times kids didn't have parents at home to help them with it.”
When asked what Reena thought about having her older sister in her classroom, Rajani said she thinks Reena was “weirded out.” But despite the weirdness, Rajani said Reena was “pretty happy.”
“I think she was just pretty confused, but she was happy,” Rajani said. “She like told all her friends, 'That's my sister.'”
As an art lover herself, Rajani said being able to “take one little thing and kind of spread it around” to “a lot of people to help a lot of people” is an incredible feeling.