By Sheila Eppolito
Graphic designers use their skills to promote everything from yoga pants to yogurt, but nine students from the Art & Design Department’s Design in Motion class recently put their talents to work for a far more challenging and rewarding client: Melmark New England, a school for autistic children and teens in Andover.
Established in 1998, Melmark New England (MNE) is a highly sought-after nonpropfit educational and clinical organization serving hundreds of people with autism spectrum disorders each year. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, autism spectrum disorders are diagnosed in 1 out of every 68 people, including 1 in 42 boys. Despite its prevalence, effective treatment can be elusive, especially for those most seriously affected.
MNE has earned a national reputation for its innovative programs and scientifically based services. The school’s daily operations, which are conducted by a staff of nearly 300 teachers, counselors, clinical psychologists, nurses and speech, occupational and physical therapists are funded largely by school districts in Massachusetts and other New England states. In order to expand the school and residential programs, pilot innovative teaching methods, conduct research, and perform outreach to public schools, Melmark relies upon charitable donations from individuals, foundations and local companies.
Enter Visiting Lecturer Regina Milan and her graphic design students.
“Students were asked to convey the importance of Melmark’s mission through 60-second motion graphics that would be used for fundraising,” says Milan. “I wanted to do two things with this project: let my students see that design lives everywhere, and give them a real client/designer relationship to navigate.”
Motion graphics are animated videos combining words, sound, pictures and video, and can be used in an introduction to a fundraising event, on YouTube, on Melmark's website or in an email message.
“The challenge wasn’t easy,” says Milan, whose identical twin, Rita Gardner, is CEO of Melmark, Inc. Founded in Berwyn, Penn., 50 years ago and with the service division in Andover, the organization serves nearly 700 children and adults across two day schools, a residential campus in Pennsylvania and homes for children and adults in the Merrimack Valley.
“The design work became personal fast once I saw the work that is done there.”
-Art Major Derek Kunze
For Derek Kunze, an art major with a graphic design concentration from Methuen, working with Melmark was immediately different from other design assignments.
“We came and got a tour of the school and met students and staff,” says Kunze. “But the design work became personal fast once I saw the work that is done there, and the unbelievable dedication of the staff to help their students live better lives.”
Melmark’s students are largely non-verbal and may also have self-injurious or other challenging behaviors. Most had not experienced any educational or clinical progress prior to coming to MNE. Melmark relies on applied behavior analysis (ABA) and other evidence-based methodologies. When a student comes to Melmark, Gardner explains, “they’ve already tried and failed in numerous other programs – these are the most challenging, complex cases.”
In sharing Melmark’s mission with the students, Gardner told the story of Nate, a young man who had participated in 65 different programs before coming to Melmark. Acutely self-injurious – his nose and legs were wounded down to the bone – Nate was also non-verbal and unable to self-toilet. After Melmark’s ABA strategy and years of hard work, Nate reads at a middle school level, lives independently and has two part-time jobs in the community that he loves.
Graphic design majors (and identical twins) Jenna and Kelly Freitas were moved by the project’s promise.
“With this assignment, we had the chance to help give a voice to clients who need support,” Jenna Freitas says. “It was humbling, and we tried hard to always be respectful of the students and their families in our work.”
In selecting four of the students’ proposals for an upcoming fundraising push, Gardner touted the quality of the designs.
“I know that UMass Lowell’s tagline includes ‘Work Ready,’ ” Gardner says. “I’ve worked with a lot of professional agencies and designers over the years, and in my opinion, these UMass Lowell students are ready now.”