Sandra Newman’s home, where I went to interview her on a chilly day in early January, is set back from the road, on a hill overlooking Stockbridge. The former dance therapist and founder of Community Access to the Arts (CATA) has decorated the walls of her home with oil paintings of flowers and tender scenes between mothers and children. Photographs of her family adorn the living room. And yet the house has the feeling of being welcoming and not over-decorated; it holds the same sense of economy, intention and self-collection that Sandy herself conveys.
It was in this very house, in 1993, that Sandy held some of the first workshops that began the project that was to become Community Access to the Arts, a nonprofit organization that now provides workshops in the arts for 600 people with disabilities, at their studio on Railroad Street and throughout Berkshire County.
When asked about the strengths of the organization, Sandy names recognition and inclusion. She describes CATA as “a personal and intimate environment which has grown as such, and where everyone’s voice is honored and recognized.” She knows each of the individuals her organization serves by name, and many of them declare unconditional love and devotion towards her. “Sandy has always been there for me,” writes Louisa Millonzi, a multitalented CATA artist, “I love her madly from the bottom of my heart.”
Sandy is not one to shy away from anything scary or difficult. When she began working as a dance therapist she acted as a consultant for patients with alcohol and substance abuse. “I knew if I could do this,” she says, “then I wouldn’t be scared of anything else.”
She also maintains a refreshing level of clear-headedness and humility when it comes to her achievements. “I didn’t know that I was building a nonprofit or following a leadership transition model,” she says, “I just did it.”
Sandy officially stepped down as the director of CATA in 2014, after a three-year transition process that by all accounts was handled with an exceptional amount of grace and intention. Sandy’s reasons for stepping down from her role as executive director were based on a desire for CATA’s ongoing success.
“I wanted to step down to ensure that CATA would continue for the next generation,” she explains. Sandy retired over a year ago, and the organization has continued to grow and flourish in the expert hands of a dedicated staff.
Margaret Keller has taken on the role of Executive Director. “Margaret’s [leadership] is a gift,” Sandy remarks, looking back on the transition and the subsequent year since her retirement. “She holds the mission very strongly.”
Over the course of her career, Sandy has seen the arts alter the course of human lives in remarkable and unforeseen ways. She has seen individuals with schizophrenia step forward to tell their own stories, and CATA artists formerly crippled by terrible anxiety perform in front of hundreds of people at the annual gala performance. Sandy knows that many things are possible which are not ordinarily given credence in the public eye, and part of her life’s work is to render them visible.
After her first week of participating in CATA programs, Carol, a CATA artist, came up to Sandy and declared, “Sandy, I am a GREAT dancer.” Sandy retold this story to the board during a presentation when she announced her retirement. But she ended the story not with Carol, but on a note of self-reflection: “I, Sandy Newman, am still a GREAT dancer!” she exclaimed. Carol’s self-confidence inspired Sandy to claim her own identity as a dancer and artist.
“What we provide is wonderful,” Sandy remarks, referring to the CATA workshops and other services which give people with disabilities a creative outlet. “But their gift to us is incredible.”
Sandy remains bright-eyed and is constantly brainstorming ways to improve the world around her. “I always thought that it would be a great idea to shut down Railroad Street for pedestrians, and install benches all along the sides of the street so that passersby could sit and linger for awhile,” she says, a quiet smile growing. “Maybe you can help me,” she says, with a glimmer in her eyes, and I immediately feel recognized and included, as though my help could be invaluable — and also that I shared the seed of the idea in the first place.
When Sandy retired, students in the CATA writing workshop composed a poem to honor her that concludes: “There is room for everyone in Sandy’s house.” Sandy has built a home — nay, a palace — where all are welcome to discover and display their talents.