Open Hearts Art Center was developed by three women who had a passion for creating a program that combined their love for art with their desire to make a difference in the lives of differently-abled adults. Based on a holistic approach to habilitative care combined with the use of multiple forms of expression, Open Hearts Art Center has been serving adults with disabilities since June of 2005. With only a small amount of day programs for adults with intellectual disabilities in the western North Carolina area, and none that focused solely on the arts as a therapeutic approach, Open Hearts has been a one of a kind program for the members of our community.
Seeing inherent value in each individual’s artwork as an avenue for self-growth Open Hearts emphasizes the visual arts. Our staff encourages daily reflection of each student’s rich history and personal story as a source of inspiration for their work. In addition to two-dimensional and three-dimensional forms of art, Open Hearts also encourages expression through performing arts such as music, dance, movement, drama and theater. Offering a variety of choices increases the opportunity for everyone to exercise their imagination.
Open Hearts became incorporated and received their 501-c3 nonprofit status in 2004. In 2005 they received their Medicaid provider identification number to provide billable services though the Division of Medical Assistance as well as state funded services through our Local Management Entity, Western Highlands. The Board of Directors was developed consisting of students, parents, case managers, art advocates and community members. The directors fund raised, acquired in kind donations and received support from community members to procure monies needed to begin serving this population. June 1st2005 Open Hearts began offering classes and have grown ten-fold since their inception.
Sonia Pitts, Jessie Francis, Debbie Harris
Sonia Pitts, Jessie Francis, Debbie HarrisSonia Pitts is a native of Asheville, where she grew up taking art classes from local instructors in early childhood. She graduated from the University of North Carolina in Asheville in 2002 with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology where she focused on Creative Arts Therapies. Sonia has been working with adults with intellectual disabilities for over 15 years, and was a co-founder of Open Hearts Art Center. Sonia oversees human resources, various program operations, outcome development, corporate compliance, as well as assists in strategic planning, and organizational goal monitoring. Sonia enjoys spending time with her family and friends, photography, urban exploration, mixed media design, traveling, gardening and seeing live music.
Jessie Francis studied Human Services at Montreat College and ended her time there with an internship with a young artist who had autism. That led to working with other adults living with various developmental disabilities. Most were artists and Jessie, a lover of the arts, had found her place nurturing the expressions of this population. Jessie co-founded Open Hearts Art Center and is the Director of Finances, overseeing all fiscal operations. She loves her administrative, behind the scenes work in this creative, inspiring setting where every day is bright and bold with color and life. In addition to her work, Jessie's days are spent with music, dance, yoga, reading, travel on the brain, the outdoors, and her friends and beautiful family.
Debbie Dearborn Harris, Co-Founder and Director of Clientele and Events of Open Hearts Art Center is a lover of all things art, family, travel and music related. Her art education began in High School where she attended the North Carolina School of the Arts then later graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Art from Appalachian State University. She now lives vicariously through the artists of Open Hearts Art Center, nurturing their talents, creating events to cultivate their self-confidence and bring awareness to their vast abilities.
Bri GelsingerBri attended Fresno State in California for five years, studying for her Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies and in the Master of Science in Rehabilitation Counseling program. After school, she worked for 5 years with a non-profit is Arizona, where she ran a day program for adults with severe mental illness. Although she LOVED her job, she wasn’t happy living in Arizona, and she took a year to figure out where she wanted to make her next home. She traveled all over the country, working on organic farms and living out of her car. During that time, she visited Asheville, and within 24 hours, she knew she wanted to make it her forever home.
When she's not working at Open Hearts, Bri is an artist, focusing on painting. She is passionate about the arts, since it has played such a major role in her life. Bri shares, “Art has always been a way for me to express myself and work through whatever it was that was troubling me. To me, life is like a canvas. You can paint whatever you’d like on it. If you decide it doesn’t work for you anymore, you can start all over again and paint something new. I am so happy to have found Open Hearts and am excited to see where this journey takes me.”
Bryan OttavianoProgram Manager
Bryan is a performer, writer, healer, director, and choreographer, hailing from New England. He has been working in professional theatre for nearly twenty years. Some of his favorite roles include Horatio in Hamlet and Charlie Brown in A Charlie Brown’s Christmas.
Bryan has been working with the differently-abled his entire life, sighting his aunt as a major inspiration to give back to a world that has blessed him in so many ways. Coming to work at Open Hearts eight years ago was like coming home. You can find him as the resident jester, filling the days with smiles and laughter.
Candy BellCandy Bell is an Asheville native with over 20 years of experience in the field of IDD/MH. She got her start at Black Mountain Center, and from there, has worked at group homes and workshops throughout Buncombe County. She spent almost eight years providing Alternative Family Living services before coming to Open Hearts Art Center.
Candy finds her experience working with the artists and staff at Open Hearts to be exceptionally rewarding and enriching. She is very excited to be a part of the team, and she looks forward to sharing her love of music with the artists. Music has been a huge part of her life, and her favorite thing is to spend a quiet evening at home with her husband, dogs, and cats, listening to music and reading.
Devin GibbsDevin has worked with people who are differently-abled for 6 years. She began volunteering with the
Special Olympics as a teenager and, through this, began working with people with disabilities. After
graduating with a degree in Sociology from UNCA, she became employed with Open Hearts. Devin loves engaging with the artists in all of their projects and interests. She is happy to be a part of this wonderful
program and is inspired every time she comes to work.
Jaime Lauren Webb
Jaime Lauren WebbJaime moved to Asheville from Florida with her family in 2006. She has worked at Open Hearts since 2011. When she first began, her main interests were in music and song writing, but after working alongside the brilliant artists at Open Hearts, they have expanded to painting and embroidery, as well. Jaime loves being able to collaborate one-on-one with Open Hearts artists and always looks forward to art shows and Boundless Art trips. Jaime loves her job very much and hopes to be with Open Hearts for a very long time.
Karen SnyderFollowing graduation from UNCA in Health Care Administration, Karen has had the privilege of serving individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilites and their families for over 25 years. She joined Open Hearts in 2011, initially as a volunteer and then as a staff. As a paraprofessional, Karen enjoys enriching the lives of the artists through the arts and through teaching life skills.
Melissa DownStudio Manager
Melissa is originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State. She moved to South Carolina in
1994 and received her Studio Art Degree from Columbia College in 1998. After some time adventuring
in Canada and Vermont, Melissa moved back South, settling in Asheville in 2003.
In 2005 she gave birth to her son, Desmond. Her relationship with him led her to spend many years of his early life at the West Asheville Playschool as a founding parent and teacher, collaborating in its experiential and play based learning environment. During her summer months, she explored the arts with elementary aged children in various summer camps of her design.
In 2016 Melissa was hired at Open Hearts Art Center, where she happily works in its ever-evolving, vibrant arts community. She is passionate about inspiring and empowering people of all ages and abilities through the creative arts and, of course, being inspired, herself, by those she is privileged to work with. Melissa enjoys spending time exploring the outdoors,
gardening, and cooking with her family.
Ruth PartridgeRuth is a graduate of UNCAsheville with a degree in Anthropology. After completing her studies, Ruth traveled abroad for several months. Though she loved the adventure and the wonders of traveling, she always missed home and eventually decided to return to Asheville. Shortly after settling back in, Ruth was fortunate to find employment at Open Hearts Art Center and has been loving it ever since. She loves that she gets to spend her day laughing, dancing, creating, and connecting with other artists. On her days off, she can be found dancing, painting, taking photographs, crafting, enjoying live music, hanging out with her awesome family, and attempting to become best friends with every dog she meets.
Salley WilliamsonDevelopment and Communications Manager
Salley Williamson grew up in the lowcountry of South Carolina. After high school, she migrated to Montana, where she lived for 10 years before moving to Asheville in 2008. She received a BA in Social Work from Carroll College in Helena, MT and then went on to earn a MA in Fine Art, Integrated Arts and Education at the University of Montana, Missoula and a MEd in Curriculum and Instruction at Montana State University-Bozeman. She traveled for three years as a one-woman show with the Art Mobile of Montana, a nonprofit arts outreach program that provides access to contemporary art exhibits and hands-on art lessons.
Salley has worked at Open Hearts Art Center for over six years, serving in various roles on the staff. In 2017, she was awarded Forty under 40 in Asheville, recognizing rising stars in the business community, for her work at Open Hearts.
In her spare time, Salley enjoys spending time on her farm in Asheville.
Seth McPhersonSeth is an Asheville native--born and raised--and grew up with an older brother on the Autism Spectrum. A writer and music-lover, Seth appreciates all forms of art and loves to encourage others in their creative pursuits. He spent 18 months traveling through New Zealand and Asia with his wife before joining Open Hearts Art Center and regards his travels as one of the greatest times in his life.
Sidney GuidaI began working at OHAC Spring 2016, after volunteering for two years.
I always had it in my hopes, and the time was right.
I'm semi-retired, which means I bring a variety of experiences with me.
My basket of experiences includes a BFA in Fine Art at SMSU, studies in art teaching K-12 and Early Childhood, mother of 4, CNA in senior facilities, and home health aide. The love of natural textile fibers and upcycling tends to be where my creative muse takes me. All of these skills are useful here at OHAC.
In short, I'm a caregiver and artist and loving it!
Stacy McPhersonAssistant Program Manager
Stacy McPherson is from Mills River, NC. She has worked in the human services field since 2008. She worked in the horticulture field in New Zealand and SE Asia for 18 months, before coming to work at Open Hearts Art Center. Stacy is grateful to teach and be inspired by the students and fellow staff through this passionate program. Her interests include hiking, camping, woodburning, gardening, traveling, and experiencing new cultures. She loves anything outdoors and adventurous.
Talia ScarpelliTalia Scarpelli joined Open Hearts in April 2017 after several months of volunteering and getting to know the many artists. Previously, Talia studied art at the University of Alabama, where she wrote political cartoons for the school newspaper and did graphic design work for several campus organizations. She enjoys teaching zine-making classes with Open Hearts at Firestorm Cafe in West Asheville and also makes zines in her free time.
Tara BrummettQualified Professional
Tara Brummett is an Asheville native, who became a part of Open Hearts Art Center in August of 2015. Tara enjoys spending time on the water with her husband, son, and faithful pup-panion. She has a B.S. in Therapeutic Recreation from Mars Hill College and has been working in the human services field for over 20 years.
Terri SatchellI lived most of my life in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where I was fortunate enough to have two very rewarding careers.
One was in Special Education at the S.C. School for the Deaf and Blind and Equine Assisted Therapy Program. The other was in healthcare at Spartanburg Regional Hospice and Oncology Center.
In 2012, I felt the need to return to the mountains, where my family's roots feel the strongest.
I am so grateful to now be part of the Open Hearts family. I am constantly amazed by the creative and caring staff, as well as our wonderful artists.
Open Hearts is truly a very special place.
Tim SlusherTim relocated to Asheville from Pennsylvania in April of 2016. During his last year in Pennsylvania, Tim had been volunteering at an art therapy studio and realized he had discovered a new passion. When he found out he would be moving to Asheville, he knew he needed to find a similar place. His search lead him to Open Hearts. One of the first things he did when he arrived in Asheville was begin volunteering. It didn't take long to realize he had found a new home!
Tim has an interior design degree from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and has spent over 20 years doing commercial and residential interior design, in Boston, Charlotte and then Philadelphia. One of his most exciting jobs was a hotel project in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. When circumstances lead to the move to Asheville, Tim decided it was time to start a new chapter in life. He loves working with the awesome folks at Open Hearts and is thoroughly enjoying this new adventure. The artists at Open Hearts are fearlessly creative and Tim finds that completely inspiring!
Board of Directors
Jimmy and Sheila Kindley
Jimmy and Sheila KindleyJimmy moved to Asheville from Bryson City, NC at age six. He grew up near downtown, where he and his five brothers explored every nook & cranny of Asheville as they grew up. Jimmy is retired from working with UPS.
Sheila was born and raised in Asheville, NC and never desired to live anywhere else. Her motto is, "Asheville born, Asheville bred, when I die will be Asheville dead." Sheila is retired from nursing.
Jimmy and Sheila enjoy traveling, volunteering and any and all water activities. They have two daughters.
Both are passionate about differently-abled individuals and have spent much of their time since the birth of their first daughter, who was born with Down Syndrome, advocating for and supporting this population and their families.