Dream Weavers: Crafting Possibility, Living Service

Dream Weavers

Demorest, Georgia (Senate District 50)

“Come on in,” Ray White says, extending his hand with a friendly, warm smile. He leads the way into the Dream Weavers’ space in Demorest, a small town in Northeast Georgia. As he steps out of the sun into the room on the basement floor around back under the community health department, a circle of other friendly faces await. He proudly walks around each and every room with all the other Wednesday Dream Weavers, explaining each piece of memorabilia, a docent leading a group of other tour guides in this veritable museum of crafting treasures.

 (Story continues below after slideshow.) 

Group from the Dream Weavers stands on a brick staircase.
A Dream Weaver member talks about hanging art.
Members of the Dream Weavers sit around a table and talk.
Members of the Dream Weavers stand in front of one of their art pieces.
Pieces of Dream Weaver artwork hangs on a dark blue wall.
Dream Weaver member sits at a table wearing a pink shirt.
Medicaid service themed art hangs on a wall.

Group from the Dream Weavers stands on a brick staircase. A Dream Weaver member talks about hanging art. Members of the Dream Weavers sit around a table and talk. Members of the Dream Weavers stand in front of one of their art pieces. Pieces of Dream Weaver artwork hangs on a dark blue wall. Dream Weaver member sits at a table wearing a pink shirt. Medicaid service themed art hangs on a wall.

Ray is one of the founding members of Dream Weavers, a community access group provided by Avita Partners, for adults with intellectual disabilities. Founded in 1999, they came about under the humble and generous leadership of Denise Eller, a long-time staff member at Avita Community Partners which serves Northeast Georgia through services related to mental illness, developmental disabilities, and addictive diseases. On the wall of the main gathering and craft room, a quote from another founding member, Carla, is written on the white board: “We want to be remembered for the services we give, not the services we get.” With that mantra in mind, the Dream Weavers have grasped hands and moved forward into a shared life, full of service, joy, and literally thousands of crafts. Grace Turner, who is one of four staff members who come on different days of the week to work with Denise, has been with Dream Weavers for just under a year. She comes to the work primarily through her interest in art-making. Grace often designs the patterns for new creatures by free drawing them on paper. 

They call most of these projects, “Give Backs.” A brief list of Give Backs: front line workers received hand-sewn chickens because they “weren’t too chicken to keep working during the pandemic,” the local wolf refuge received donated proceeds from crafts sales, children received monsters so they wouldn’t have to be afraid of monsters under the bed or in the closet, grandparents raising their grandchildren received owls because “they are wise like owls”, an elementary school classroom primarily comprised of Spanish speaking students receives regular classroom support and instruction, and then there was that small village in…Mexico!

The trip to Puerto Morelos just outside Cancun has become the standard bearer for what this group can accomplish when it sets its mind to it. They’d been to the People First Conference at Jekyll Island for three years in a row. When the Dream Weavers sat down to discuss planning and fundraising for the fourth year, one of the members pulled out a Sunday newspaper clipping and said, “We could do that again. But right here it says we can go to Mexico for three to four hundred dollars a piece.” Denise thought it would be impossible to make happen, but the more the group talked about it, the more the dream became real. “I took the idea to my bosses,” Denise says, “and they were like, ‘You gotta be kidding. Think about Medicaid or if something happens,’ and I just remember saying, ‘If we are truly going to be advocates, and we are truly going to follow what they want, then here is a big opportunity.” Thirteen participants and four staff went for five days, carrying with them boxes of clothes, crafts, and school supplies. Denise jokes that the staff didn’t sleep for the entire trip. Upon arriving at one of the homes selected for the project, participants were delighted to learn that one of the children had Down syndrome because “they were serving one of their own.” The Dream Weavers continued to stay in touch with the folks they’d met there, sending a parcel every month for an entire year. Although it happened in the early 2000s, Denise has doubts it could ever happen again because of how the system works today.

Each of the Dream Weavers has a unique gift. There’s Scott, a cancer survivor and the resident singer. He leads the group in a rounding rendition of “Blue Christmas,” his favorite. There’s Wanda, the best seamstress, who was featured on TV and in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for the hundreds of owls she sewed. Billy is a self-advocate serving on the board of the Georgia Gathering. Mary, Little Miss Sunshine, has been known as that all her life. Terry, also a founding Dream Weaver, loves to help people and work hard. Carla is the resident expert on 1970s music. Horace, the best visual artist, created a mural-sized outline which displays the evolution of his art. It starts on the left side with the many skeletons in graveyards (“dark things”) he used to draw when he was a younger, unhappier man. Moving through other symbols toward the right, now, with a home, mental health services, and strong advocacy, his art reflects a brighter present and future through a constantly repeating motif: the sun.

With 23 years of history behind them, another important visual timeline in the space is the sprawling, artful re-creation of their important milestones and memories. Taking up two sides of a hallway, the timeline was completed in 2018. Thus, the group bemoans the fact that they now have five more years of history needing to be archived on another panel yet to be created. And where to put it?!?! 

Serving a large swath of Northeast Georgia, most participants in Dream Weavers travel between 10-25 miles to attend. Because some have jobs and other things to do, there are different groupings of attendees on each day, but about 25 total attend throughout the week. All of this is made possible by the Medicaid waiver which Dream Weavers have, specifically the Community Access - Group (CAG) structure provided by the waiver. Participants are able to pool their CAG funds in order to provide the staff and services needed to make Dream Weavers a constant, invaluable structure in their lives. “These folks could be doing any number of other things, but they choose to come here,” Eller says.

The Dream Weavers meet regularly as a council to discuss and plan what project they want to do, who they want to serve, where they might want to take a walk, when they want to decorate for the holidays–just generally how they want to spend their time. Denise guides them through a democratic process to make decisions. While each project may not be every person's priority, she makes sure that, if they don’t get their way with one thing, they are certainly going to be a primary part of the next. 

Sadly, the Dream Weavers lost members and family to the COVID-19 pandemic. They name each member who passed, talk about how much they miss them. Then comes a litany of other losses, either friends and family who died from COVID or other valued members of the Dream Weavers who passed from other causes before the pandemic. As they take a few minutes to remember these loved ones while standing near their timeline, an unusual quiet falls, eyes divert to the floor or dart around to each other. The impact of these losses is palpable for just a minute before they look up and move on to touring the space. They take turns leading the discussion of their many adventures–-the one hundred tie-dye t-shirts made for the cast and crew of “Wanderlust,” which was filmed nearby and requested to borrow one of their statues, the handsewn shopping bags of recycled consumer products such as Cheeto wrappers they used to talk about the environment. 

One member they can never forget was George Campbell, who passed away about eight years ago, and was the inspiration for the Dream Weavers’ regular practice of walking for exercise. Known as the “Walking Angel,” George wrote and published a chapbook, funded by a small grant from the University of Georgia press, called “My Two Good Feet.” George was once asked if he wished he had a car. His reply: “Why would I need a car when my two good feet’ll take me everywhere I want to go?” Because he always signed his books, “George Campbell Love,” Denise had a stamp of his signature created so they can still issue “signed” copies. Before she retires, she’d liked to help the group write a whole book about Dream Weavers, with each member having their own chapter.

One of the group’s proudest ongoing projects is to lead the opening ceremonies at the Georgia Gathering, a two-day conference where people from all over the state come together to learn and share their skills, ideas, and experiences related to the impact of person-centered practices. Dream Weavers led a parade to open the conference eleven years ago. Now, designing and executing some creative offering for opening ceremonies has become an important tradition in their annual calendar, one they take months preparing for. 

What’s next for the Dream Weavers? Sky’s the limit. When you manage to go to Mexico, anything is possible really.

Writer: Shannon Turner, Photographer: Reagan Powell

Copyright © 2019 Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities. All Rights Reserved.
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