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Jimmy Sutman|ISLE

Jimmy Sutman is a proud graduate of the now defunct Best Driving School. He also attended Grove City College for undergraduate work and Youngstown State University for graduate work. There he studied creative writing under the tutelage of Steve Reese and Phil Brady. Jimmy works with a diverse group of people at the Purple Cat, ISLE, and Golden String Inc. His latest passion is caring for peafowl, a passion groomed from the readings of Flannery O’Connor. His peacocks reside at Farmer Casey’s Ranch in Coitsville, Ohio. Jimmy resides with his wife, Jill, in Downtown Youngstown.

Power of the Arts interviewed Sutman in Jimmy’s Pearl Street office.

Karen Schubert: This is Karen Schubert with Power of the Arts and I’m interviewing Jimmy Sutman today. I’m in Jimmy’s office. You can tell it’s full of color and notes and books and there’s so much going on here. I just have a sense being in this space that you have a rich and varied life and lots of things going on at once. So thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy day.

Jimmy Sutman: My pleasure.

I want to talk a little bit about how you got here. I know that you went to Poland Seminary. You’re a Youngstown boy?


And you went to Grove City?

Yes, I went to Grove City College.

What were you studying there?

Communications. It has served me well. Public speaking, I do a lot of that type of thing. But everything from professional to creative writing. I was pretty blessed. I had a lot of good instructors there. And even not so much the instruction but just their passion for it, you know, they instilled a lot of that in me. I’m always on the hunt. I really like research. This was back in the day before we could look everything up on Google and our phones where you had to go to ancient books to find obscure facts.

I know what you mean. People who didn’t grow up with that will never cease to see it as a miracle.

It is.

Everything you want to know right in your pocket.

How much time, you know? I struggle with time because everything moves too fast. Especially for my adults with disabilities— this world that is getting faster and faster, is sending them further and further on the outside, on the edges, fringes of society. There’s a little bit of sadness of that, that I try to slow everything down. I just did an in-service with about one hundred of my employees and that was one of the main focuses where we have to slow down. Don’t be on your cell phone with the clients. Listen to them when they get home. Ask them questions. The details. Pay attention to details. Don’t skip over them.

I think that is something that is common in the world today, that those with disabilities aren’t interesting or aren’t capable of art. Their art is so unique and so beautiful, it just takes a little while to uncover it. You’ve got to take a little more time to see it. And when you do, it’s just fascinating. Especially in the world of autism, what’s going on in some of the minds of these individuals. It’s tough to tap into it, but once you do, you can find something that is just absolutely a miracle. So that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to slow things down and we’re trying to expose the personalities of these folks and I guess, in turn, find art in that.

So it sounds like you’re using art as a vehicle to access peoples’ lives and their inner-workings. Do you feel like that’s the case?

Yes. And I think, really, a lot of my folks with disabilities, because they didn’t fit in, in so many different areas of society, that they really weren’t exposed to the arts. So I really think that that is one of our missions. We are to expose, inundate our folks with the arts, whether it be doing watercolors, or on the stage of the Youngstown Playhouse, or reading their poems on, whatever it may be, just keep exposing them.

It’s kind of sad, especially some of our aging folks, we do a lot of residential for folks and that usually means when Mom and Dad are ill or when Mom and Dad pass away, they come and live with us. So we have a lot of folks who are in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and it’s sad that people that age, a lot of them have never been exposed to some of the arts. Even an individual, let’s say, with Down syndrome, at 58, might be getting their first real exposure to that. And— boy. It’s immediate. [Snaps fingers] We see changes, immediately.

I love your baseline assumption that people who don’t have disabilities are getting enough exposure to the arts. Do you really believe that?

Oh, yes.

You look back in your life and you see that they were pretty rich with arts.

Um— believe me, I think the human spirit gravitate towards it, even if you’re not exposed to it. Our first client Joe Gallagher who I’ll use as— I knew him the best. We were really tight. He passed away about five years ago. Joe was the inspiration for ISLE, which is the residential, the Purple Cat, which is the day program, Golden String, which is the 501c3 that raises money to support socialization and the arts for our folks, heck, Joe is even inspiration for the candy store, because he wanted to work somewhere, which is Touch the Moon in downtown Youngstown.

But Joe, working class family, Southside of Youngstown, hard Irish folk, they weren’t soft in many ways. They weren’t going to take Joe to art classes. As long as Joe was not in trouble, they really didn’t pay him a lot of mind. And Joe was the youngest of, at one time, seven or eight children. So as long as Joe was safe and he wasn’t in trouble, everyone was happy.

Joe, himself, found it. He found music.

Do you think his siblings did?

I think that they did, because they had the capabilities to go out and look for it. And they had friends that could drive and take them places, they could get on the bus and go places, to a theater or see a concert. But Joe didn’t have all of those options. He wasn’t trusted to do those types of things. There just wasn’t someone that would do it.

So he, on his own, this was in the era of rock ‘n roll coming in, Joe found 45 records, and he would go all over town scrounging them up and collecting these things. When he first came to live with us he would sit in his room for hours and just look, I mean, literally stare at the record player and when the song was over, flip it up and change something, or stare at the covers, the album covers. He found his own way and I think the family was probably happy with that too. Joe, go play with your records. Go up in the upstairs and get out of our hair for a little bit.

But who didn’t do that in those days? That just sounds like a universal experience. Right?

Exactly. And he found it. But Joe was a bright guy.

How did you meet him?

I knew of Joe when I was a very little boy. We lived in a similar neighborhood and our parents were friends. They used to play a lot of cards together back in the day when the neighbors would get together and do a lot of that type of thing on the front porch. But there was a period of twenty years when Joe was not part of my life. Once I graduated from Grove City College, I took a part-time job working at the sheltered workshops, which really changed my life.

I can remember the first day of my work in the field, at the sheltered workshop, Joe Gallagher got off a giant school bus. They were still at that time bringing our folks in yellow school buses even though they were adults. And Joe got off that bus and he looked at me and he just was by my side from that point on. It wasn’t like he recognized me, because I was a small boy when he knew me previously. But I don’t know, I don’t know what I did, but he just wanted to be near me a lot, and so because of that we became good friends.

Wow. What was the trajectory of going from that first job to deciding that you wanted to start a  program of your own?

That’s a good question because that was not even a thought. I had gone to school for communications. My main job, I was working for WKBN, so I was heading in the news field. But I was disenchanted with that. I don’t know what I thought— I went to school for four years thinking I was going to become a t.v. journalist and then I found out it takes about twenty minute to write the news and you have to write it at a fifth grade level, and there really wasn’t much art or style to it. It was professional writing, and I appreciated that, a great resumé builder, but not something that I knew was going to keep me occupied or my mind occupied.

So getting back to your point there, at the workshops, here I was with these people who all had needs. Immediately I saw this as the ultimately problem-solving situation. Families would come to me and say, I don’t want to talk about the sheltered workshop, because I know Joe is o.k. here, but at home, we haven’t been on a vacation in twenty years because Joe won’t get on an airplane.

Or even worse, I had some families say to me, it would be a widow who would come and say to me, I go to bed every night worried sick what’s going to happen to my son or daughter because he’s an only child or she’s an only child, and there’s no one to take care of them and I’m not going to be around a lot longer. What do I do? So there was a lot of gravity to that.

So after working there for approximately five years, I thought, there’s bigger problems out there. I was tired of dealing with bureaucracy, too. The sheltered workshops were run by the state. There were a lot of employees that were your stereotypical state employees that really weren’t doing much. There were instructors that were content to sit a group of people with disabilities around the table and just have them cut coupons or color. And these are adults. And everyday I was coming home frustrated.

So it was time for a change no matter what. I kind of rolled the dice and said, maybe I’ll try this residential thing because all these families are saying the same thing over and over to me. And there were systems in place but they were very sterile, they were institutions, still at the time, this is the late ‘90s, so I thought, heck! let me go out there and start a home, a nice home, that people would feel like a home.

So you can be a lot more nimble, a lot more tailored, and create a rich and warm environment and programming.

We can paint the wall whatever color Joe Gallagher wants it versus it has to be this standard white because that’s what we do in all of our buildings.

No purple! So what is your relationship with government infrastructure or government funding?

I would classify it as positive.

What is it, exactly?

We are part of the Medicaid system. So most of our folks, we do have some who are private pay, or some we just take because it’s the right thing to do, but most of our folks are part of the Medicaid waiver system. So they either have what’s called an I.O. waiver, which stands for Individual Options, or Level 1, which is kind of like the baby brother of the I.O. People who are with us residentially have the I.O.s, because all the I.O. waiver pays for is staffing, some environmental modifications if needed, but those are minor. It’s mainly staffing, twenty-four-hour-a-day staffing. So if Joe Gallagher lived with three other people, all four of their waivers combined pay for twenty-four hour-staffing, seven days a week.

Purple Cat is day program. A lot of those folks have the Level 1, baby brother, waiver, and that pays for their transportation to and from Purple Cat and for their day program.

So I feel like, for those people who are really keeping track of the news I just want to note here, because they’ll be thinking about it, that you’re probably watching very carefully to see what happens with Medicaid. I wish we had more time to talk about that, but I did notice on your website that you have two hundred employees and one hundred fifty clients. I just, noted, that that’s an incredible ratio. You have more employees than clients! That’s amazing.

Yeah, and that’s outdated now, our in-services, every year in July we have to in-service every one of those employees on the latest news in safety and trainings. People with developmental disabilities, and we’re going to train close to four hundred people this year. Some of those are volunteers, but yeah. It’s kind of funny. People don’t think that, because of the nature of a lot of our folks, too, and this has been challenging, we don’t take just the easiest folks. We have a lot of folks who require a one-on-one, meaning all day long, twenty-four hours a day, meaning one staff person for this client due to behavioral concerns. We have some that one-on-one little periods of the day for medical concerns.

The face of everything has changed, and there’s no doubt about it, the government wants us to become a more a medical model. I like that, because that’s keeping people out of nursing homes; it’s keeping people out of hospitals longer; and we have such a good staff-to-client ratio. Joe Gallagher, there was lots of talk toward the end of his life of him having to go in a nursing facility and I wouldn’t have it. Most of the time in a nursing facility there’s one staff person for twelve people that have a myriad of medical issues. Where Joe was living, it was 1:4 ratio. I’ll take that any day. And plus I can get extra staff. A nurse even to come in to help Joe with specific medical needs.

I’m a little blown away with all you’ve learned since you got your degree in communications. Are you an autodidact?

It’s just— again— it’s problem solving. If I need to find some information, that’s where my research comes in. I will call the people. I will find it. I’m blessed and there’s no way I can do this— I have a great surrounding corps of dedicated, smart people who find things out for me and they go out and help me tremendously. So that’s essential. But you know, basically, it’s just a product of weird problems that pop up out of nowhere and everybody looks at me and says, What are we gonna do? And I was like, well this is what we’re going to do. We’re going in this direction. We’re going to do this. I’m o.k. with that role. I don’t know if I always will be, because, again, what we do is 24/7 and there are times where we have multiple fires going at one time, and you think to yourself I don’t know if I can keep this pace. But God always sends me some peace. The arts give me my peace. And I think that’s why I love it so much, personally.

Thank you for transitioning. I was working my way back to that, as well. So exactly what kinds of arts are you bringing into your programming? What does that look like?

Our Purple Cat really has allowed us to focus on that.

What do you mean by that, exactly, Purple Cat?

Again, just going back to me working at the sheltered workshop, if you’re an adult, and Joe Gallagher graduated from high school (which he never did because it just was a different era), but when he became an adult, he had no options. And then thankfully someone created the sheltered workshop system, so probably in his 20s Joe had no structured, any programming. In his 30s, he was able to go to a sheltered workshop for awhile. And it stayed that way through the ’70s, the ’80s, mid-’90s, finally, Joe, people like Joe that graduated high school, and folks with disabilities can stay in until the age of 22, either go to the sheltered workshop or now you can get a job. You can try to find a job. Obviously those weren’t plentiful.

But with the advent of Purple Cat and some of the other alternative day programs, finally, in the 2000s, people who were graduating had choice, and that’s what fueled me— you didn’t have to choose the Purple Cat. Families would call me up and ask, what should I do? Go to all five, six places, pick the place that’s best for you.

And so along that thought with the Purple Cats, my wife Jill and I, because Jill runs the Purple Cat, I’m the big running, trying to run everything, but day-to-day operations is Jill at the Purple Cat and Jill’s philosophy more than mine is, as we take new people and we have to grow. We’re not going to have cookie-cutter places. Because we want our folks to have choices within the Purple Cat.

All of our folks want to work. Not all, but most want to work. One hundred percent want some of the arts. So that’s been the flavor. Our Purple Cats range from our farm with alpacas, peacocks, now we’re having bees, we’re making honey—

So the short definition of Purple Cat is day programming.

Correct. It’s actually called day habilitation. Not rehab.

More enrichment.

Yeah, enrichment’s a good word. So we have a farm, people can work at the farm, but we also, at every one of our Purple Cats have an art instructor and a music instructor. Anyone that you’re at you can always get that. But the farm, agriculture, working with animals.

Our Morley Theater, which is a theater, it’s the old Oakland Theater, so every day they can put on their own performances for themselves or record things or record videos or play Wii on the big movie screen, whatever they want to do. So there’s definitely a dramatic tilt to the Morley Theater.

Gallagher’s Lunch Bucket, named after my good friend Joe Gallagher, is a restaurant. That’s at the Oak Hill Renaissance, so people who want to work in the restaurant field get to do that. But there’s also instructors to do art and instructors to do music.

Here at Pearl Street we take a lot of folks who are on the autism spectrum, which is great. And we have Golden String Radio here which is an internet radio station, designed by our folks with disabilities where they are professional DJs, they get paid to do their own shows. We also have a kitchen, a training kitchen here. We also have arts. We do a lot with landscaping. We’re about to get animals out here if the City of Youngstown will allow such things.

What kind of animals?

Well, our first choice would be chickens. That’s a losing battle. But there are close variations of chickens. We’re looking at ducks and rabbits. The peacock thing— if they’re going to be upset about a cock being loud, they’re really going to be upset about a peacock screaming.

[Laughing] They are so loud.

I can circumvent the system and really turn the screw to the City on that one because I think they would allow the peacocks because they don’t know they can be quite loud.

But anyway, the Purple Cats are all different. And if people want to rotate, we rotate them. Maybe they want to work in wintertime in the kitchen at Gallagher’s, but they love to work in agriculture in summertime, at the farm. Bingo! That’s what we’re trying to do is put people, not put them into a specific place. Have them develop their space.

Who’s teaching your art classes?

That’s interesting, too. When we first started the Purple Cat I thought, oh, boy we’re going to struggle to be able to pay people who are very specific in what they do. We have no problem with employment with Purple Cat. And people who have degrees. These aren’t people who— I’d be o.k. with that— you don’t have to have a degree to be an art instructor at Purple Cat, but we’re getting way professional people who can do huge, huge things. But our turnover rate hasn’t been— we just had a great instructor leave because her dream has been to work in library sciences and she has an opening to go a little far away and do that and we love that. We love that and she told me how, wrote a beautiful going away letter about how working with the clients has changed her thoughts, and how it’s going to affect her in the library sciences.

That’s incredible.

But a lot of folks with these degrees are sticking around. And I think a lot of that is creativity. We  allow them to do what they want. You want to do this particular play, o.k. Amy Rigby leads our charge in that. I mean, she’s writing plays, to our clients’ needs because she knows the actors and actresses, their specific things, taking wheelchairs into consideration whenever she’s on the stage. So her adaptations and original things have been great. She’s the inspiration behind our variety show.

Our folks, a lot of them grew up, their parents would sit them in front of the t.v., so they’re very familiar with the variety show genre of the ’60s and ’70s, everything from Sonny and Cher and Donny and Marie to Bob Hope. They know all of that. So we’re going to kind of infuse that flavor. But you know, even specifics, ceramics, watercolors— this office is filled with little cards and notes, from people who— a lot of them can’t read or write but that makes them more special. They’re just allowing them to do specific little things with the arts. Just giving them supplies and saying, go with it.

So the arts are a vehicle for expression and creativity—

No doubt about it. And I think they all look at it as, I don’t go to a day program, it’s a job. This is my job. And it’s cute, Joe Gallagher used to say to me, every part of his day at the Purple Cat, he wanted to go to college. He called it college. That meant he could, and Joe couldn’t really read or write but I would write things and he would just copy it. He would sit there for hours in his own little handwriting but he loved it. It kept him busy and he felt he was doing, he’d see me at my computer or see me doing it, he wanted to do it. And in his mind, that’s what it was. So Joe went to college too. We always said, o.k., you’re going to college. Never, This isn’t college! That’s one of the fascinating things about my folks, too, is they come with what typical folks would think are wild ideas and very rarely do I say no. I’m like, that’s an interesting thought! and even if we have to adapt it or change it, we go with it.

That’s really great. So I know that you love poetry. Do you remember how you came to poetry?

Definitely the biggest inspiration was Frank Monahan who was my freshman high school English teacher. In fact, I was just watching, just a little bit, I don’t watch much t.v. but I couldn’t sleep the other night and I was watching West Side Story, which I always understood was Romeo and Juliet, because I remember watching it specifically in English class. My family never would have exposed me to Broadway, singing and dancing, and I can remember being blown away. These are gangs and they’re dancing! and this is so bizarre! I loved it.

That’s an example of what he exposed me to. But not only that, I mean, I can understand, again, the Romeo and Juliet that’s part, not an uncommon part of the curriculum at that age, but he would bring in comic strips. He would bring in little snippets of movies, old filmstrips of people from the ’30s and ’40s talking about the classics, and then we would compare it to how people talk about them now. How thought has changed in society.

Wow, that’s cool.

He really was brilliant with it, and of course I wasn’t brilliant, but it just stuck with me. And he was always, just very positive. I would like to think he saw a lot in me, but I think he was probably like that to everybody. And he’s passed away now, too. But there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about his influence. And that was the big thing with poetry. He liked modern American poetry. I thought poetry had to be sonnets. I didn’t think poetry could be everything from haikus to Bukowski. I had no clue. So he said yes, you couldn’t be that way. You might not like the sonnet but you’re going to like this! And we did.

How do you think we get stuck on that? I know a lot of people, too, whose perception of poetry is that it’s difficult and archaic, and I feel like if everyone knew contemporary poetry, they would like it. They would know that they like it. It’s so likeable!

Oh gosh and it’s so much fun. Did you get my last email that I sent you, from [Barbara] Crooker? She described the moon as “a cheeseburger on a black grill.” That’s far away from, you know, Old English poetry.

I know, exactly.

Beautiful in its own right.

Yep. So domestic, and tender, and so sensitive, and just so easy to understand. It’s just little compressed little stories.

Oh gosh, and in a speedy world I’m surprised it hasn’t caught on more. You get such a story, and sometimes the best poets can say it in very little, so well without say it.

Have you been writing poetry, yourself?

I have. I probably have about 200-250 poems that are never finished. Some of them are somewhat finished, but I always kind of go back and try to rework. Some of them I don’t because they’re so personal to that time in my life. And I read them during my poetry show.

Tell us about your poetry show.

Um, it’s called Oranges: Pop Music and Poetry. One of the people that Frank Monahan exposed me to is Gary Soto. Gary does write a lot teen-type stuff, and he’s written some books, but he’s just a great poet, and talk about describing normal, every day things in a beautiful way, he really has that talent. So I just named it after that. Because “Oranges” by Soto was really the first poem that kind of inspired me that I could write like that. Not as well, but I could write like that. So I just wanted to always think, like ISLE, stands for Iron and String Life Enhancement.

The “Iron” is Joe Gallagher. Joe loved to iron clothes. He was a fiend for that. My second client, his name was Bradley Huffman, always had a little ball of string.

Oh! That’s so lovely.

When I name things, I try not to lose the heritage. Oranges, I named it after that and whether it becomes something special or it’s just a little poetry show where Jimmy Sutman reads and not many people listen to it, I’m o.k. with that. But I try to have names that are kind of anchored in history.

But talking about the show, it’s great. I just read, what I do is I usually read a poem, very few are my originals, a poem from anyone, from local poets to the classics to new contemporary stuff and then I play a couple songs that I feel tie in to it. There’s a little bit of intrigue there, you have to figure out how they’re tied together; sometimes it’s quite overt. Reading a poem about flight attendants and then I play “Waitress in the Sky” after that, and obviously you can figure out why. But sometimes, there might be one lyric or one word in the song that ties into the poem. So, again, it’s the research of it. It’s goofy, I often say I narrowly missed being on that autism spectrum, because I can go on a hunt for weeks for that one perfect song or that one poem and again, I might only have a dozen people listening, or maybe five people listening, and I know they don’t pick up on it, but it pleases me.

That’s a wonderful quest. Jimmy, thank you so very much for talking to us today. I really appreciate it.


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