Alyssa Wojcik worked in a retirement home kitchen when she was in high school, but she never imagined she would return to the same facility after college – the difference is now she uses her degree from Tyler School of Art in her work there.
Wojcik said she knew since childhood that she wanted to take her passion for art further than creating her own work by helping people using her degree. Now, having graduated with a bachelor of fine arts in painting in 2012, Wojcik is bringing art into the lives of residents at the United Zion Retirement Community in her hometown of Lancaster, Pa.
“I had never [personally] worked with elderly people before this,” Wojcik said. “I just happened to really love it, and from there I knew I wanted to work with the elderly.”
Wojcik continued to work at United Zion while pursuing her undergraduate degree, but it was not until after graduation that she was chosen for a position helping to lead arts and crafts activities.
“I actually feel like an art teacher,” Wojcik said. “I like how United Zion is such a small care center. I would much rather work at a community level, doing small projects.”
Since taking on the position a year ago, Wojcik said she has encouraged the seniors to step out of their comfort zones to add variety and excitement to their everyday lives.
“It’s a really great thing and a really surprising thing,” Wojcik said. “Some of [the residents] were really scared at first, to get messy and things like that.”
Wojcik said she tries to get as many residents involved as possible, aided by the fact that many of them already showed an interest in art. The more reluctant residents were her biggest initial challenge, she said.
“I have one resident who I’ve always felt bad about because she says she can’t really understand me – I talk pretty fast,” Wojcik said. “[The resident] always said she couldn’t do this, she couldn’t do that, until one day she came up to me practically in tears with a stack of coloring pages she did, and this woman is maybe 99 years old. She’s 99 and starting a new hobby.”
Many of the seniors at United Zion are unable to verbally communicate because they live with dementia or various other conditions. Wojcik said it makes her feel particularly glad to know these residents now have a way to express themselves without speaking.
“There is such a wide range of abilities,” Wojcik said. “When I get everyone together in a group, they really help each other out, and that gives them all a good feeling, too.”
In addition to helping one another and sharing their work among the residents, United Zion also has a public gallery which displays the artistic talents of the seniors. Wojcik said she’s had a significant role in expanding the efforts of the gallery to add positivity to the senior center.
“[United Zion] had the gallery before I took the position, but what I’ve done is just push it a lot further,” Wojcik said. “I’ve typed up explanations for each work and put nametags with it. I’ve also done a lot of promotional work.”
Wojcik said the gallery has received attention from people in the community who come in to support the residents and to see the work of local artists, an idea she said she has continuously pushed for. She also said the Lancaster community has been influenced by the gallery and the people seem more open-minded, in her opinion, in their taste in artwork.
“My purpose for taking over the gallery is not only to help some of the artists I know get some notoriety, but it’s an easy way to get your art out there,” Wojcik said. “I have emailed schools and pretty much every art collective in the area. Sometimes we get single artists and sometimes we get groups. A lot of people have also gotten shows after having their work at the gallery.”
Wojcik said the most important thing to her is being able to make a difference at United Zion and using her love for art to do so.
“A lot of [the seniors] get depressed because they feel like they can’t make things anymore, so it’s that feeling of pride and accomplishment,” Wojcik said. “This is a way I am working with people hands-on. I know exactly why I’m here and I have a purpose. I just feel so lucky I get to use art in my career.”
Alexa Bricker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.