When you step into the Arc of High Point’s Wild and Free facility, you have no idea what kind of flurry of activity you may find. There may be someone serving coffee, a kiln for ceramic art being fired, gardeners tending to a multitude of raised beds, a group of people playing arcade games, a creative brainstorm happening around a movie screenplay, or even someone gathering eggs from a chicken coop.
As High Point’s one-of-a-kind day program that serves individuals with disabilities, Wild and Free strives to empower those in the disabilities community to set goals, reimagine their futures, and chase their dreams. How this happens is the fun part: Wild and Free offers everything from life skills to vocational training, to volunteer opportunities, to creative fine arts, to agriculture exploration, to community engagement opportunities.
We got to spend an afternoon at Wild and Free, to learn from staff and participants what the program encompasses and how it’s filling unique gaps in High Point.
“The Arc of High Point offers all different kinds of programs, and Wild and Free is specifically a day program,” explains Sam Baker, the Program Director of Wild and Free. The program operates Monday through Friday from 9 AM to 3 PM with the intent to serve adults over the age of 18 as they transition into independence or the next phase of their life.
“We fill the gap for what comes after high school,” Sam explains, “because not many families know how to support their loved one after high school.”
The folks at Wild and Free also know how to make every day interesting. Through their Creative Wellness Program, the staff at Wild and Free provide an array of creative and artistic projects, from fiber arts to ceramics, to painting, to filmmaking. (Their handmade and painted items are available online, in their shop, and at local businesses: The Budding Artichoke, 83 Custom Coffee, and Sovierio’s.)
The group is also working on funding and producing a screenplay for their film, “Hot Wing Redemption,” an action comedy about a group of superheroes who have to face off their opponent after a night of revelry at a Buffalo Wild Wings.
“It’s not common for our participants to be asked about their ideas and their creativity,” explains Alicia Kellum, Program Coordinator for Wild and Free, which is precisely why the staff puts so much emphasis on creative ownership and authority. “They first came up with characters that already existed, and we explained, no, this gets to be whatever you want it to be.”
And while on any given day, the Wild and Free members may take in a game at the High Point Rockers, enjoy a meal at a local restaurant, or spend time working on one of their many creative projects, one of the deeply-embedded values at Wild and Free is emphasizing the importance of self-advocacy and self-confidence.
“We help individuals to learn how to advocate for themselves, and we train them on what their rights and responsibilities are… We give guidance on what social circles look like, how to be safe in those social circles, and how to expand those circles,” Sam says.
This mission was ultimately what first inspired Sam to create Wild and Free just a little over four years ago.
“I was working in a hospital as a patient advocate,” Sam recalls. “And that meant working with a lot of individuals who needed extra support.” As Sam observed how individuals with disabilities were often treated, she soon realized how few of them understood their rights and their freedom to change their lives.
Sam, disturbed by the lack of education and support for individuals with disabilities, found herself ranting one day to a friend, Liz McKinnon, who worked at the Arc of High Point.
“I went on a big tirade about how this isn’t how things are supposed to be,” Sam remembers. “And Liz said, ‘So change it.’”
That nudge was all Sam needed to jump full force into creating a solution instead of dwelling on the problem. Sam and Liz created a proposal for the program that would one day become Wild and Free, and submitted it to the Arc of High Point Director, Stephanie Antkowiak. Once the board approved, the idea became a reality.
“Stephanie put faith in me, regardless of my lack of experience,” Sam says. “So with zero actual experience in this specific field, I just came in with passion, a goal, and an idea of how I thought people should be treated and supported.”
Sam started Wild and Free on what she describes as a “random Tuesday” with one lone participant. But within a few months, the program had three participants. Now, four years later, Wild and Free has a staff of five team members, 20 participants, and a waiting list.
“If you treat people the way they should be treated, if you support people towards their goals and their dreams, you’re going to get bigger,” says Sam, “because that’s what people want.”
Unlike some day programs that function as “daycares” for adults with disabilities, providing only busy work, Wild and Free has a bigger vision in mind. Their programming is aimed at helping participants discover their gifts, talents, and passions.
One participant came to Wild and Free with low self-confidence and little motivation to try new things. But in his time in the program, he came to discover a love for the culinary arts.
“His words were, ‘Once I came to Wild and Free, I made friends, I got happy, and I realized I could do stuff,’” Sam says. “He eventually enrolled in culinary school, and it’s something he never had exposure to and didn’t realize he enjoyed.”
The stories like this one are growing, as Sam and her team have watched participants find their passions and their drive to be part of the High Point community. Thanks to a collaboration with Growing High Point, Wild and Free is part of the urban agriculture collective, which gives participants the chance to explore food sustainability and agriculture. One participant discovered a love for seed germination at Wild and Free and now has a grove of avocados germinating.
In addition to supporting participants as they discover their purpose and talents, the team at Wild and Free sees themselves as liaisons and advocates in the community for all the ways individuals with disabilities contribute to and better our community.
“Our big mission is to support the individuals who come into our space to get whatever it is they want out of life,” Sam explains. “Secondarily, we show High Point, and anywhere we go, that we are whole people.”
Oftentimes, individuals and organizations approach Sam with how they can donate or volunteer with the program. And while Sam is quick to tease that the program won’t turn down volunteers or donations, the team desires to be seen as more than just a charitable organization. Sam says that it’s the long-term goal of Wild and Free to be a place where businesses, organizations, and individuals go to find an employee, a volunteer, or a collaborative effort.
“How do you reach your dreams if you don’t have an income?” Sam asks rhetorically. “We believe a person with disabilities should be paid a livable wage and should be able to integrate into places of business.” She cites extensive research that showcases how many businesses benefit from having an employee with disabilities on their team.
“Those employers typically see less turnover, higher productivity, and for the most part, an increase in overall employee morale,” she notes. “People are just more inclined to be supportive and helpful in situations where they’re inclusive.”
Wild and Free will also partner with local businesses to help them outfit their space and adjust their procedures to be more accessible to individuals with disabilities.
“We want… the community as a whole to see the power and the validity of people who have disabilities, who are so worthwhile and so capable of being real, integrated citizens of High Point,” Sam says. “We have so much to offer as the people who are here at Wild and Free, and we serve the community just as much.”
Because when it comes to building a diverse and well-rounded city, being mindful of including individuals with disabilities is a huge part of building a stronger, richer community.
“We talk about ‘inclusivity’ a lot now, and we’re looking to include all sorts of different individuals in all of our daily life activities,” Sam explains. “And this is just one more group of people who have a lot to bring to the table.”
Sam recalls a metaphor about diversity expressing how no one would decorate their home with the same piece of art over and over again. Instead, people seek out an array of colors, textures, and patterns to make their space more beautiful.
“If you paint a picture with only blue, it’s not a really interesting, full, or developed piece,” she says. “We think of inclusivity as bringing in the color to beautify the world.”
Discover our High Points,
The HPD Team
You can donate to Wild and Free here. To shop the Wild and Free store and support their mission, you can shop online or visit their shop at 153 E. Bellevue Dr. from 9 AM to 3 PM, Monday through Friday.
Photography by Kingdom Work Creative