Debbie Noel is the author of Drop In With Debbie, a blog published on the City of Longmont website that tells the stories of interesting and inspiring folks who are over the age of 50. She brings understanding and relevance to our lives through her words. Debbie has a long career serving others. She has developed programs for children and adults, including inmates, those with disabilities, the elderly, teenagers, and folks from urban settings. She was a reporter and editor for a Pennsylvania newspaper with a unique beat focused on community issues. She was president of a company that served people with disabilities and finally completed her career in Pennsylvania government where she was a project manager that worked on changing policy, procedures, and laws for those who were aging or for people with disabilities. Now retired, Debbie volunteers teaching creative writing classes for the Longmont Senior Center. She is also an artist. Her artwork can be purchased at Joy House in Estes Park and it is used to support nonprofits close to Debbie’s heart. Community Food Share is one of those nonprofits that benefits from the sales of her art.
This blog was written by Debbie and originally published on Longmontcolorado.gov.
Serendipitous moments in life delight me. The right conversation, a door opens, and a new adventure awaits. I say “yes” and as happenstance would have it, a new venture begins. I’m going to tell you about one that is bringing me lots of joy. Hint, hint…that short three letter word J-O-Y will be part of the journey that recently unfurled for me. Read on, my friends.
I have always had an interest in art. Even as a young child, I remember finding flowers, grass, rocks, and smearing the colors from nature’s pieces onto my paper. I was so proud of those original drawings. However, growing up with complicated family dynamics, I never felt confident about anything: my looks, my education, my art, my music, or my writing. I felt like I was a failure most of my life.
In high school, I took art classes and loved every project. After I moved out on my own, I started taking college courses and I continued to play around with art. However, most of my time was focused on school and working full-time.
After I married, I refurbished furniture and painted them with designs; I quilted, made rugs, wove baskets, and much more. However, whenever I tried to draw, I felt like I did not have the skills. I was embarrassed to show people my sketches.
In the 80s, I was a young mother. I had two children. I enjoyed creating things that enhanced family time. I decorated quilts with dolls and blocks for my young ones. We created houses out of huge cardboard boxes. We made birthday cakes in the shape of trains and my children and their friends would decorate every train car. I ran summer camps and before- and after-school programs for young children. Of course, art was on the agenda.
In the early 90s, life changed and I was then a single mom. I was working full-time and did not have any waking hours to devote to art.
Then I had one of those “my life before / and my life after moments.” I was visiting a friend, who, when cleaning his gun, laid it down on the sofa and the gun fell down the cracks of the sofa cushion — forgotten. That night, there was a get-together with lots of guests, and a three-year-old child found the gun in the cushions, picked it up, and pulled the trigger. Without knowledge of the gun, I was standing in the kitchen talking with friends. The bullet flew from that gun and hit my back. It severed my spinal column. I live permanently paralyzed from the breast-line down. From then on, I lived with the necessity of a wheelchair.
I decided to finish my college degree. Every semester, I tried to enroll in art classes. I would apply the first day and I was always told the classes were full. This was in the early days of schools and businesses figuring out how to comply to accessibility codes. Art classes were in the basement. There was not an elevator to get to the bottom floor and steps were impossible for me in the wheelchair. I always wondered if it would have required a lot of work to move the art supplies upstairs. Was that why I was not able to get into an art class? I devoured lots of art history classes. I loved my path in trying to understand the art world and its connection to civilizations.
Years later, then in my late 40s, I was president of a non-profit organization that served people with disabilities. One of our most influential community leaders and supporters of non-profits, Bob Pullo, instituted a group called York Fellows and I was one of its founding members. We were non-profit leaders and mentors to others. I was also awarded one of the first grants given by the Fellows Organization. It was for $6,000 given to a non-profit executive so that they would better themselves — not in business, but in their personal interests. I still hold the record of doing the most with that grant. (The key was that for everything I did, I would ask those owners to donate half the cost as an in-kind gift. This doubled what I could do with the money.)
With that $6,000, I traveled to New Mexico and interviewed artists from indigenous communities in their homes on the reservations. I met with authors. I took a year-long communication class. I took training on right-brain/left-brain thinking. I participated in art therapy sessions. I took guitar lessons. I took an oil painting class. I didn’t realize at the time, but all of those interests spawned what would become the joys of my retirement years.
After decades of living with paralysis, it took its toll on my body. I retired early for health reasons in 2014. One of the first things I did was create an art studio space in a section of my living room. I started dabbling. I created cards for friends. I painted. I sketched. I created little pieces of dollhouse furniture for my granddaughter. Slowly over time, my confidence grew and so did my art skills.
Over five years ago, I moved to Colorado, and I could not take my large lovely studio with me. With what savings I had, my daughter and her husband allowed me to turn their garage into my “tiny house.” It’s a 240-square -foot home that contains everything I need, including a small kitchen. Now I cook for one. My budget permits me to buy the basics on my grocery list. Another non-profit, Cultivate, does my weekly shopping for me.
However, the prominent feature in my tiny house is the space where I work on my art. Now retired, I have the time to create. I quickly immersed myself in my new Coloradan community. I shared my gifts of art with my new friends here. I started taking art classes at our local senior center. My skills and confidence continued to grow. I was invited to donate items for silent auctions. I had such joy in my heart every time someone donated to a non-profit because of their bids for my artwork.
Before I tell you more about my art journey, I have to introduce you to some lovely creative people. Remember, I teased you with J-O-Y. Well, if you could see me right now, you would see a huge smile on my face. I cannot write this part of the story without feeling joy. Here is their story.
Marla and Joe Truitt are the parents of three children, Seth who is 31, and his younger brother, Spencer, and a younger sister, Alisha. Their oldest son, Seth, has a diagnosis of Down Syndrome.
There are challenges that come with that disability. In Seth’s case it means he needs corrective lenses for his eyesight. His hand-eye coordination and thought process do not happen quickly. He was born with a heart defect which has since corrected itself.
When you first meet Seth, you will have to pay close attention to capture the cadence of his speech. However, very quickly you will understand and fall in love with his joyful personality. Oh yes, he loves creating artwork and he loves his morning coffee.
Marla and Joe have been wonderful parents who taught Seth skills to be independent. From the time Seth was eighteen years old, he wanted to have a house of his own and live independently from his parents.
So, in 2018, the couple decided to realize Seth’s dream. Plans were implemented to build a home about 100 feet from their house. They worked with the township to get all the permits approved and then started to build. They also created a Facebook page titled “Joy House Project.” They asked for help from community members. Numerous people poured in their kindness with donations, materials, and a helping hand.
Throughout the building of Seth’s home, Marla and Joe funded a large majority of the project. However, the community’s contributions were a huge gift and helped to make Seth’s house become a reality. Everyone started calling it the “house the community built.”
In April 2020, Seth moved into his new home. He happily calls it “his house.” Affectionately, it then became known as the Joy House because of all the joy that Seth brings to what he loves.
His independence allowed him to do his own laundry and household chores. He likes a clean house. He also does some meal preparation. Seth loves to cook.
Marla continued to research options for how to allow Seth more independence. Readers, for years my career allowed me to advocate for people with disabilities. Marla’s understanding about Seth needing his independence is a wonderful gift that a parent can give to a child born with disabilities. It was important to the family to provide Seth with the skills necessary for him to lead a life with autonomy.
Marla posted on the Joy House project Facebook page: “Joy House is getting bigger. If you have business experience, we could use some help.” That is how Kim Messina entered the Truitt’s lives. Kim has lots of experience in her career as a chief financial officer. As well, she has been a part of her church ministry that worked with people with disabilities. Kim knew immediately in her heart and soul, “I had to do this,” she said.
She reached out to Marla and told her, “I don’t know what or how, but I can help.”
Kim and the Truitts became fast friends. Kim and Seth also exchanged phone numbers. Now Seth calls her regularly just to talk. Kim said, “It’s the best part of my day. Seth finds joy in everything.”
Looking toward ways to assist Seth in his financial independence, he and Marla started selling greeting cards that exhibited Seth’s artwork. His products were promoted on their website. In early 2020, sales were good.
Marla and Kim met for lunch at a coffee shop and the two kicked around other ideas to increase the business. Seth had been working at a soup and salad restaurant. However, during the 2020 pandemic, he was only given limited hours. Then he was hired by a local Chick-fil-A. The manager had followed Seth’s story and wanted him to work at his restaurant. Seth loves it there.
At their coffee shop meeting, Marla told Kim about the growth in sales in the earlier part of the year. However, she said that throughout the pandemic, sales lulled. She tossed around many different ideas that Seth might be able to do towards his financial independence.
This was early November 2020. Kim suggested that Marla and Joe talk about all the options and see which one made the most sense to both of them. Two weeks later, Marla told Kim, “We are opening a gift shop in Estes Park. All artists will be people with disabilities, and we will open February 2021.”
The Truitts and Kim, who is now their finance manager, jumped in with their business expansion ideas. Plans started to move at a whirlwind pace. They reached out to artists throughout the country. They wanted to provide independence to others who may have a disability but who also have creative skills. As well, they contacted companies who employed people with disabilities.
By December 2020, Joe and Marla found the building that would house their store. On December 26, they signed the lease. On February 1, 2021, they took over the building. And true to their word, on the last day of the month, they opened their store on February 28, 2021. It’s called Joy House – Gifts with Purpose. It’s a family enterprise. Even their son Spencer’s fiancé, Cambree, works full-time at Joy House.
“Everything fell into place,” Kim said. Both she and the Truitts have found this business venture to be “very rewarding.” The store now regularly features between 35 to 40 artists. They’ve also ramped up the JoyHouseStore.com website. They plan on having items on the site and ready for sale for the 2021 Christmas season. You can also sign up for their monthly newsletter.
Readers, do you see where this is going for me? In a serendipitous moment, my friend Lisa introduced me to Marla. It was one of those times I knew I had to say yes.
I am going to donate my one-of-a kind artwork to Joy House. When purchased, all proceeds from my creations will be given through Joy House to several charities. At the end of each year, Joy House will make a donation to five non-profits in honor of me. It is my way of being able to say thank you and to support these five organizations; each has touched my life deeply since my move to Colorado.
They are Via Mobility Services, Cultivate, Crossroads School, Friends of the Longmont Senior Center, and Community Food Share.
So what does Community Food Share do for me? I would not eat as healthy as I do without Community Food Share. They often donate a couple packages of meat. For me, cooking for one, that becomes my protein selection for a two-week period. As well, they often have salad in the by-monthly box which is something I typically do not buy – but I love. I have a small refrigerator so I cannot hold a lot of food. Also, fresh veggies are sometimes a waste of my money because the head of lettuce, for example, goes bad before I can use all of it. The prepackaged salads, often donated by Community Food Share, are a wonderful gift and healthy addition to my diet. I am so very grateful for their help. I must say too, that everyone I have met through the Food Share has been so very kind. From the employees, to the volunteers, no one treats me in a demeaning way. They are respectful, thoughtful and I could not be more appreciative.
I hope you go online to visit Joy House, I hope you enjoy the stories of many different artists. They each have a life-tale that is beautiful and creative. As well, when in Colorado, you could go to one of the most amazing tourist sites, Estes Park, and visit the store. There you will be able to purchase many of the one-of-a-kind items, as well as the products you see online.
Readers, thank you for allowing me to tell this story. When my friend Lisa introduced me to Marla, I knew that this was the culmination of a series of steps that my life had taken. My artwork is now doing exactly what I hoped it would; it’s bringing joy to many in-need through your donations. As well, for the others featured at Joy House, you are helping to create a community of artists who can live independently. I humbly thank you!