Boosting positivity

Mains’l celebrates 10 years of empowerment in Chico

Students of 7th Street Centre for the Arts’ wellness class smile in front of a mural they created with Chico artist Morea Milgrom.

Students of 7th Street Centre for the Arts’ wellness class smile in front of a mural they created with Chico artist Morea Milgrom.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

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When Kinley Ferguson started attending classes at Mains’l Services about a year ago, the state of her health was a bit of “a mess.”

Ferguson, now 33, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was 6 years old. She had reached a point where she was frustrated and tired of managing it, she said. This led to poor choices when it came to her diet, causing her blood sugar levels to oscillate dangerously.

She sought out Mains’l as a residential support provider. But the organization, which specializes in providing personalized supportive services for people with developmental disabilities, ended up impacting more than just her physical health.

Right away, Ferguson was welcomed into classes at the organization’s performing arts center, 7th Street Centre for the Arts, where she was encouraged to explore her artistic side.

Theater instructor Zac Yurkovic said he’s noticed a huge change in Ferguson since her arrival. She used to believe she wasn’t a talented artist, he said, but the longtime dancer now enjoys singing and painting, as well, and has even started selling her artwork.

“We’ve noticed a huge self-esteem boost in [Kinley] discovering a new skill,” he said. “She’s just carrying herself with a lot more pride, and she’s excited to talk about her next project and her next painting.”

Many students at Mains’l follow similar paths of self-discovery, Yurkovic added. They not only enjoy learning more about themselves, but also sharing their newfound skills with others—teaching their peers how to dance, or how to be better organized.

“They really embrace the thought that we all have different strengths,” Yurkovic added. “That’s really a big part of the philosophy of Mains’l; embracing your strengths and trying to find new ones.”

It has been a celebratory year for Mains’l, which has been operating for 10 years in Chico, the location of its California branch. (Its corporate offices, founded in 1989, are in Minnesota.) The name comes from the nautical term for the principal sail on a ship, the main sail, and is grounded in the organization’s mission to be a driving force of support for those it serves.

Anne Silcher, director of Mains’l California, says the organization has grown in terms of the strength of its community partnerships and expansion of services and support. Back in 2008, Mains’l had 37 employees providing support to 23 people. Today, 172 employees are serving 196 clients.

The organization started locally with two programs: 7th Street Centre for the Arts and Innovations Center for Learning, which provides social and life skills training, as well as learning opportunities in science, technology, arts and health.

Since then, the organization has added a College Essentials Plus program to assist adults at all stages in their college journey, from academics to socialization to independent living skills. Mains’l also offers programs that teach participants how to utilize public transportation; family and individual therapy; composting; and a food pantry, in which interns deliver food to participants.

Mary Ostrowski, program manager for College Essentials Plus, says her team currently has 26 students enrolled between Butte College and Chico State.

During a recent visit, she and Natalie Valencia, program manager for 7th Street Centre for the Arts, burst with pride as they shared stories of former and current students. Some have graduated with associate’s degrees. Others have moved into their own apartments and are working. Some are married. Others are now professional, paid artists.

But all of them, the colleagues shared, are following their own dreams.

“They find out who they are, and that’s the important part,” Valencia said. “They are not labeled by what their disability is.”

On that Thursday afternoon at 7th Street Centre for the Arts, many students eagerly raised their hands into the air to answer Yurkovic’s questions. A group of them had just finished their first cold reading of a theatrical scene, and their classmates wanted to give their take on the message it conveyed.

That day’s session aimed to teach a valuable lesson: how one person’s attitude can influence the attitude of those around them, and that there is power in choosing positivity.

Whether participants have been involved with Mains’l for 10 years or for two, Silcher said it has been phenomenal to see those involved achieve their goals and become young leaders.

“People’s lives are being changed for the better,” she said, instructors, volunteers and those receiving services alike.

Ferguson is a case in point. “Usually, when I come in on a bad day, people are so full of positivity, I’m like, ‘I don’t want to be a dragger!’” she said.

Now, she feels not only artistically stimulated but also motivated to improve her diet and her well-being.

“I’m making better choices because of Mains’l, because they’re helping me and supporting me,” she said.

Part of Silcher’s dream for the organization’s future is integration, bringing folks of all abilities into classes together. She’s hopeful that Mains’l will have success expanding local businesses’ partnerships to generate more job opportunities for those with varying abilities, as well.

Valencia added that for many people with developmental disabilities, there has been a lot of “doing for” rather than “doing with”—they have been told what to do, “without a lot of choice on their own.”

“We [at Mains’l] envision a world where people live with meaning and purpose,” she said. “You’re the captain of your own ship. We should be there to help guide you to where you want to be.”