CHICOPEE — SkillBuilders Makerspace+, a creative and vocational day program for individuals with developmental disability or autism has officially opened in Chicopee.

SkillBuilders is a part of ServiceNet, which is a nonprofit human service agency that provides services to people living with mental health challenges, developmental delay or disability, brain injury, homelessness and substance use issues, to name a few.

At 355 Front St., SkillBuilders moved into the vacant space next to the ServiceNet Enrichment Center, which has primarily served people with brain injuries for the last 10 years.

With many new offerings to see at the new space, Enrichment Program Director Tiffany Carter and ServiceNet Community Relations Vice President Amy Timmins provided Reminder Publishing with a tour of SkillBuilders.

Walking into the building, the first thing you see is the Makerspace+ lounge and common area, equipped with a coffee bar, foosball table, seating area and more.

In one of the two art studios, there is a kiln, ceramics and pottery wheels, along with the expansion ability to bring other activities in.

Directly across the hall in the main art studio is painting, drawing tables, sewing, blanket making, wood burning and other mediums, such as print making, silk screening, ceramics, 3D design and book binding, to name a few.

Currently, there is one instructor, Ahbleza McClure, who oversees the art and engineering. A second instructor will be starting soon but will more so help with engineering.

Carter said they will also bring in people from the community with different art specialties, to offer more diverse classes.

She noted that there seemed to be a lot of interest in photography, so they recently ordered a camera. “Our goal here is to build on the passion and the interest of the members who come here. If we don’t know about it, we will get someone who does know about it,” Carter said.

She continued, “Here, the goal is if you’re passionate about it and you want to do it, it’s here, so you want to come. You want to come, you want to participate, you want to learn more, you want to be creative.”

For instance, there is one member who is currently making earrings and has a plan to sell them so the staff at SkillBuilders will help set her up to do that, Carter explained.

In the modern tech area, there are high end gaming computers that can hook up to the 3D printers. It also has graphic arts, photo shopping and photo editing.

Vocational Services Director Shawn Robinson said one of the participants has recently been inspired to start his own computer and gaming system repair business. “He brought in a bunch of laptops he purchased and because we want to see what those abilities look like; we were able to fund $120 worth of parts — and what not — that he figured out he needed.” If he can do it, Robinson said they will help to develop that skill further and help build out the business.

In the gaming center, there is a PlayStation, Xbox and virtual reality goggles. Carter said the hope is to virtually connect members with some of the other ServiceNet day services.

Robinson added that there will also be the potential to work on other shared projects together.

For example, ServiceNet has other programs in Pittsfield and Hatfield. If there is someone in Chicopee that has a shared interest with someone in either of those locations, they could do something together virtually, whatever that might be, he explained.

In the “zen den,” members can go in there to stretch, color, or use as a quiet space, as it has a water feature and sound machine that can drown out any loud noise.

In the Lego builders’ room, Carter said there are “all the Legos you could imagine,” from books of 365 things you can build with Legos to pre-made kits and more.

The hope is to add video to the room, as McClure said this would help members do step by step Lego building. Also, he noted that it is a “very accessible way” to bring someone into engineering, along with games such as Minecraft.

Lastly, the multipurpose room conference and lunch area can be used for meetings or for members who bring their computers and want to do their own thing.

Carter shared that each morning, the program begins with coffee time and pastries, along with a brief morning meeting to review the activities being offered for the day. Two art activities take place each morning, along with a gaming activity and the open lounge which is always offered.

After lunch, the group goes on daily outings. For people who like gaming, they have visited Porters in Hadley to see what the old school arcade gaming looks like, as well as current gaming such as Round1 in the Holyoke Mall. Carter said the group has also visited local art museums.

The SkillBuilders program hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

All the members are referred — either through service coordinators or state assigned case managers — if not through the Department of Developmental Services, then it’s more particular, Cater shared.
Timmins noted that DDS is the funder for this program, so people must qualify.

When recruiting individuals or when DDS is sending referrals, Carter said they are generally sending people who have expressed interest in arts, engineering or gaming. Currently, Carter said the group is split between art and gaming.

SkillBuilders serves individuals ages 22 and up. However, Carter said they do see some younger individuals, and they are typically coming in with the school system.

The members who attend the day program are from all surrounding areas — going as far as Palmer and Amherst for transportation.

While the new space has a soft opening in early October, SkillBuilders has been officially up and running for about a month, following the ribbon cutting on Dec. 1.

Since opening, there have been about eight to 10 members that come daily, Cater shared. The cap for members is 25, although not everybody comes daily, so there is the option for people to come part time.

Carter said if one of the members shows interest in work or finding a job, they are not assisting on that level, but will support them in their passion in building their own business. She noted that she and her colleagues can make referrals for a member to move out to one of their farms and vocational services in Pittsfield or Hatfield, where they would have that option, and have job coaches and more.
There is also a work option at SkillBuilders. “At the end of the day, they can choose to earn paid work,” Carter said. “We also have a community connection with the Fruit Fair, so in the spring, we will be assisting with the building of the grant they got for their greenhouses.” Members will be able to take care of plants, providing them with the opportunity to learn farming and agriculture.

Next door to SkillBuilders is the Enrichment Center. Carter said this is “more like your senior center.”

“Everybody knows who you are, it’s a smaller group, they’ve been coming here for a long time, and they’ve formed relationships and friendships,” she shared.

The Enrichment Center offers physical, speech and massage therapy, among many other activities.
Carter noted that about 50-75% of the members come from the ServiceNet group home.

To learn more about ServiceNet and its services, visit servicenet.org.

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