Pyramid Inc. Uses the Arts to Create a Unique Program Assisting Adults with Developmental Disabilities

The Triangle Effect



Nate Sailor says drumming as part of the Pyramid program has helped him calm his temper and given him the opportunity to enjoy new experiences, such as a visit to the Gator football stadium in Gainesville.

Scott Holstein

Difficulties coping with frustration limited his ability to function in society. He had been referred to programs for adults with developmental issues in the past, but Nate Sailor still didn’t have a way to cope with life’s obstacles. 

“I was like a firecracker ready to blow up every day at anybody who said something to me,” Sailor said. 

After more than 20 years of suppressing his frustrations, the 35-year-old Gadsden
County native enlisted the services of an innovative program that helped him find a release valve. He joined Pyramid Incorporated, a nonprofit art-based program for adults with severe disabilities, and with their help learned how to control his temper. 

In 1994, the first four Pyramid offices opened to serve more than 200 adults with severe mental and physical deficiencies. Today, the organization has grown to six centers in five Florida cities that serve more than 700 students. Pyramid founders said
integrating creative and performing arts into the curriculum in the late ‘90s signified a turning point for the program. 

“We tended to serve people with the more severe disabilities, and our basic focus was on physical nutrition, behavioral managing assistance and activities geared toward enhancing their living skills,” explained Bill Fuller, co-founder and art director of Pyramid. “Then we started to develop the arts little by little over time, and that’s how people know us now. It’s the core of our programs.”

Pyramid Studios primarily uses performing and visual arts to teach life skills. Fuller and Marilyn Yon, co-founder and chief operating officer, began to incorporate different elements of the arts into the structure of the Pyramid curriculum, challenging the notion that people with disabilities wouldn’t enjoy being exposed to the arts — and it worked. 

“The skills they were learning were enormous,” Yon said. “We work with adults, and most of the adults had gone through many programs and training, and by this time they were starting to feel like ‘Hey, how many times can you learn how to do one thing?’ ”

Lana Smith, director of Pyramid Tallahassee, says the amount of art curriculum is the primary difference between Pyramid Studios and Pyramid Tallahassee local operations. The hybrid offices resemble a convergence of a classroom and corporate office. She manages more than 150 students daily in a traditional setting where about a quarter of the material covered is art-based and the rest is devoted to teaching life skills. Even with the high traffic, it’s easy to find her interacting with individual students like Sailor, and tracking their personal growth.

“The more we expose our students to things they are not familiar with, just like anybody else, the more cultured they become as human beings,” Smith said. “And the students getting paid for the art they produce is amazing because now they have a vocation, a social role and a new identity.”

She said the creativity that students access through the arts is life-altering, and offers an alternative to the simpler and sometimes mundane tasks often associated with the disabled.

“When you think about jobs for someone with disabilities, you think about someone busing tables at McDonald’s, bagging groceries at Publix; there’s only a few (possibilities),” Smith said. “This opens up a whole new social network and world for these guys.” 

At Pyramid Tallahassee, Sailor learned how to use his passion for playing the drums to calmly deal with his temper. He calls it the “Max and Mix” concept. Pyramid instructors helped him develop the idea to deal with the pressures surrounding the death of his brother and cousin, and an automobile accident involving his best friend. He expressed his gratitude for the specialized assistance he has received. 

“If I wasn’t inside these doors right here, I wouldn’t be able to function the way I do today,” Sailor said. “Music calms me down, and as long as I’m angry, you can’t talk to me … you’ll never get why I’m mad. But if you just let me ‘max’ out for a minute on those drums and ‘mix’ in the smooth, cool guy that I am now, I’ll be the nicest person you want to meet.” 

In addition to his job at the Pyramid Tallahassee office as a part-time secretary, Sailor is a drummer in a rock and roll band birthed by Daniel Woods, Pyramid’s music director. Smith was instrumental in persuading Sailor to join the band, which has already been a broadening experience for him. 

“They’ve already gone on two tours this year, which is incredible for Nate because he is a big Florida Gators fan and one of their stops was in Gainesville, so he got to go to the Gator’s stadium,” Smith shared. 

Sailor proudly relates, “I went to my favorite place to be, and it was like magic when I finally hit the field. I wasn’t on the outside, I was on the field at the Swamp. It just felt like a dream to me because I didn’t ever think that I was going to go to Gainesville.”

While Sailor has embraced music, other students have found their creative niche in drawing and painting, theatrical performances and other artistic endeavors. 

The gains made by students varies. Some make modest efforts, like improving interpersonal interaction, while others leap into leading roles in large productions, like last August’s play “The Serendipity.” The cast was comprised of all Pyramid students, some with major disabilities. Yon said more than 1,000 people attended the play, and she was completely impressed by the event. 

“Our students tell us that we have given them a lot of opportunities to travel; we’ve given them a lot of opportunities to earn a check, and to make money off a performance and their art,” she said.

Fuller said he is grateful for the opportunity he has to help develop the talent of those who, in certain cases, didn’t believe they had any. 

“We get really excited about a great performance where the audience is really electrified because that is important,” he said. “But the most important thing is to give them the opportunity to transform their lives. That’s what it’s all about.”

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