Arts therapy program in Towson caters to young people with special needs

You might call Biliana Borimetchkova the proprietor of Karina Café, although she buys or sells no products there.

Instead, the barter she uses is human kindness, ladled out in large helpings from a cadre of volunteer caregivers and therapists to children and young adults with developmental disabilities.


Drawing on her experiences in her native Bulgaria as the founder of a program that placed abandoned children with disabilities into group homes, Borimetchkova was moved, after arriving in this country, by the plight of a Towson girl who suffered from physical and intellectual disabilities and for whom she was a caregiver. While helping the girl, Borimetchkova realized that some young people with special needs — especially those reaching adulthood — might face an isolated existence as they age.

Two years later, in 2012, Borimetchkova opened Karina Café in the Worship Center of Mays Chapel United Methodist Church, in Timonium.

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Borimetchkova's vision for Karina — which is an acronym for knowledge, awareness, recognition, inclusion, nurturance, and acceptance — was to create a place where young people with developmental disabilities could socialize while enjoying the fruits of expressive arts therapy.

"There is a huge gap in the mental health system for young people reaching the age of 18 and above," she said. "The Karina Café model is cited as being one of the most effective methods in giving an individual with developmental disabilities the maximum opportunity to make developmental, functional and behavioral gains in early life."

The program runs every Saturday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., while a newly minted Monday version, at St. Luke Lutheran Church, in Parkville, features sessions from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

During the sessions, participants with special needs are exposed to a variety of arts, including painting, photography, music/drum circle and poetry/story telling, dance/movement and comedy.


From the heart

Some of the volunteers have no background in caregiving other than knowing that their services are welcomed and needed.

Melissa Parker has been lending a hand at Karina Café for just over a month, but the Sparks resident knows first-hand about the difficulties of caring for kids with special needs, including her son, Luke, who has autism.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. The disorders are characterized by difficulties, in varying degrees, with social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors, according to the website autism speaks.org.

Although Luke's problems are not severe enough to make him a candidate to attend Karina Café, Parker said, they helped to spur her into volunteering.

"It's incredible what [Borimetchkova has] done here," Parker said of the program. "Biliana is amazing. She's giving kids a place where they can go and be themselves. It's a much-needed activity for kids — and caregivers and parents, as well."

Shana Oshiro is a board certified music therapist with degrees in vocal performance and music therapy who has been with the program for eight months. The 30-year-old singer has performed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Opera Philadelphia, and the Riverside Dinner Theatre.

"Music therapy is effective for a lot of people," Oshiro said. "Depending on a client's taste, you can usually find something to engage them through music. Music can tap into their feelings at any time, and it lends itself to non-verbal communication."

Will Rhodes, the executive director of the Karina Association, the umbrella organization that oversees the program, is working on getting Karina Café qualified as a medical day care facility, which would open up a variety of funding possibilities for the nonprofit.

Most of the program's funding comes from donations, fundraisers, grants and a $977 fee for each of several therapies that are offered per session, Rhodes said. The program runs two sessions — one from September through December, and another from February to June.

"Many moderate- and low-income families don't have the money or resources to exploit professional programs for their special needs children or for themselves," Borimetchkova said. "Medical insurances, Medicaid/Medicare do not cover expressive arts therapies, and expressive arts therapists have to get a second degree in counseling in order to bill the insurances under a psychotherapy session."

To lessen costs for some of her constituents, Borimetchkova offers recreational activities through expressive arts led by teachers or art instructors, where the price is more affordable, at $80 per month or $12 per hour, she said. "They cannot be called therapy because they are not led by licensed professional clinical therapists," she added.

A fulfilling experience

Ashtin Price, who started as a volunteer with the program four years ago, is now a part-time employee who "looks forward to coming here and having fun" every week, she said. The Maryvale Preparatory School and Towson University alumnae added that when she started with the program it had only three volunteers.

Now the number is closer to 100, she estimates, many of whom come from relationships Borimetchkova has developed with Towson University and Goucher College.

"It's a very fulfilling experience for the volunteers," Rhodes said. "Most of the people who do it, have a heart for working with these kids."

Alan Greenberg, a Pikesville resident, is a former special needs teacher at the William S. Baer School, in Baltimore City. At 78, he still enjoys helping others, most recently through making copies of poems written by Spencer Wright, a 27-year-old with a degenerative neurological disorder who attends the program.

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Greenberg said he doesn't know if Wright typed the poetry himself or dictated it to someone else, but that he was happy to see Wright's self-expression.

"I get a real satisfaction out of it," Greenberg said. "A lot of that is because of Biliana. She's on track. She does things for the right reasons."

Pam Wenzl's son, Doug, 31, is a participant in the program who has autism and cerebral palsy. The program has suited him well, she said

"Doug has a problem with a lot of noise, and a lot of people at one time, which is a characteristic of autism," she said. "Biliana and her volunteers take a special interest in making sure that if he doesn't want to do something, they will get a volunteer to stay with him and do something else. Sometimes he won't get out of the car because he wants the girls to come and get him. Biliana makes sure that happens also. There aren't a lot of programs for someone like Doug, who needs special care sometimes, but at Karina Café, they always make sure he gets the care he needs."

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