In 2023, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham awarded an $8,000 grant to InToto Creative Arts to help support the work the organization does with the men from Firehouse Ministries Homeless Shelter and the women and children of Pathways. Each week, InToto offers a variety of art opportunities at both locations, including classes in visual arts, creative writing, theater, music, and movement. Several of the program participants have the chance to generate income with their talents by selling pieces of art or receiving stipends for performances.

Dani Parmar, InToto Creative Arts Program Director

That means InToto aligns with one of the Community Foundation’s five priorities: Creating Economic Opportunity for All.

But Dani Parmar, program director of InToto Creative Arts, believes that these money-making opportunities simply scratch the surface of the impact these high-quality art experiences can have on the life of someone facing immense hardships.

“The benefits really span the emotional, mental, physical, and social aspects,” Parmar says.

The Community Foundation also commissioned a piece of artwork from an InToto artist to celebrate the Foundation’s 65th anniversary. Furthermore, the grant will help support public showcases of works by program participants.

On June 21, the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts (AEIVA) event gallery will feature select artworks by InToto artists.

“The Community Foundation took a chance on us when we were still a young organization,” Parmar says. “Their support was crucial in helping us get to where we are now, which is a place where we’re financially stable.”

We talked with Parmar about the multi-faceted impact of creative arts on the lives of individuals facing homelessness and other hardships.

How did the work InToto does with Firehouse and Pathways shelters come to be?

Firehouse Shelter is our biggest programming partner. They also happen to be the reason that we created InToto in the first place. Kyle Tyree, our founder and president of our board, had been volunteering at the Firehouse Shelter for several years and he just really picked up on this need for the guys to have a creative outlet to process what they’re going through and have a little respite from the day-to-day survival mode. So, he presented that to the director there at the time and they decided to start doing a weekly creative arts class. That was in 2020 so it started with just one Zoom class every week. Since then, the program has really taken off. We’re now doing four weekly classes with them. And we’re doing all sorts of arts disciplines. At Pathways, we’re doing two weekly classes working with their Early Learning Center kids. We do a movement class, which helps the kids get out all that pent up energy. And we have an open studio session for adults.

How do these arts opportunities help people experiencing homelessness and other hardships?

The people that we work with are dealing with a lot of trauma. And this has been a really wonderful outlet to express the complex things that they’re going through. It helps you process grief, anger, and sadness and makes it easier to release that and start to heal. A lot of things that we do are calming and meditative. So, you get this reduction of stress and a relaxing effect.

And then the community aspect, I think, is really big. A lot of times, we’re working in groups, and we’re collaborating. I think that really helps combat feelings of loneliness or feeling isolated in your community. When we share with each other, when we learn about each other through our artistic expressions, we are building empathy for each other. And we feel like we matter in that community and we’re not going through this alone.

There are physical benefits, for sure. In our movement classes, we get a lot of really positive feedback that people just feel better when they come to class. The classes help them manage their pain better. It really makes a big difference, especially for folks with disabilities. We’re working on helping with hand-eye coordination and motor skills.

How does this program help participants generate extra income?

We are more focused on the therapeutic side of things, but we’re also really proud that we are able to help offer some supplemental income to our folks, especially because a lot of people that we work with don’t have a lot of opportunity to earn income. At our annual art shows [held in the fall], our participants are invited to submit their artwork, and also to perform live at the shows. Anyone that sells a piece gets to keep 80% of their sales. And we do stipends for the folks that perform live. We’ll have poetry readings and music performances and occasionally dance or theater performances. It’s a nice way to earn a little bit of extra income.

In addition to the annual showcase set for the fall, you have a special event scheduled for June 21. Tell us more.

This is our first fancy gallery show. It’s going to be at the AEIVA event gallery. This is a smaller, more curated show that’s based on a specific theme. We are looking at how people are affected by social stigma and how they navigate it. A lot of times people who are going through difficult things like homelessness, addiction, mental illness, or disabilities, they cope with a lot of stigma on an everyday basis. People have assumptions about them or misconceptions about them just because of what they’re going through. And so, we asked our artists to explore that idea. We’ve been looking at that for several weeks in class and coming up with some pieces that talk about how that affects us personally, and how we can break through that to find a place of understanding and acceptance in our communities. We’ll have some visual art, poetry readings and musical performances.

We have some UAB students that are collaborating with our artists as well. So, it’ll feature both InToto artists and some UAB student artists. That’s been really cool because they’ve been working together on some pieces. And I think that’s been a really neat process for the students to connect with folks that they might not have ever been able to collaborate with otherwise and get insight from each other about what they’re going through.

Our annual showcases are bigger community events where anyone can submit any kind of art across any type of discipline, and we invite the community out to bear witness to these creative contributions.

Tell us more about the artist chosen to do the commissioned artwork for the Community Foundation.

Juan Pastor was commissioned to design the image to commemorate the 65th anniversary. Juan is just a gem of a human. He’s incredibly talented. He has gone through a lot of really difficult stuff and he’s currently coping with homelessness and working to get back on his feet. He found us at the Firehouse Shelter and has been coming to our classes for several months now. He came to us with a lot of previous experience in the arts. He comes from a family of artists, and he was so pumped to have access to supplies again and have this safe space to do his thing. It’s been so cool to watch him fall back into his art practice.

How do you feel InToto helps the community at large?

We hope to initiate dialogue in our community around stigma so that when you run into someone in the world or in the street that you don’t know, maybe you’re not going to be as likely to automatically judge them. Maybe you’ll be a little more inclined to be compassionate and empathetic towards folks that are going through a different walk of life than you.

And anybody that works with us, or that has participated in our programs, I think they’re carrying this feeling of being supported and cared for and honored out into their communities and you really see these rippling effects.

Join InToto + UAB artists from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. June 21 at UAB’s Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts for a one-night-only exhibit exploring the impact of stigmatization and the ways of breaking through to find acceptance and understanding in our communities through visual and performance art.