This past Thursday morning, staff from the Council on At-Risk Youth or CARY and former associate judge for the City of Austin Celeste Villarreal primed the outside of the 50-foot fence of her home to prepare it for a mural project at the end of this month. About 10 students from nearby middle and high schools will turn the fence into the latest neighborhood art work, a project months in the making.
“I believe coming together in the spirit of community to contribute something creative and positive to the world will greatly benefit these young people,” said Daniella Catalfumo, a youth adviser for CARY. “Having their art up on this fence can very well serve to foster self-esteem and confidence, and improve their relationship with and outlook on their community.”
CARY isn’t an art program for young people, rather it’s a nonprofit focused on turning around young people who have been reported for breaking a rule at school. According to CARY, in the 2013-14 school year, 13,000 AISD students received at least 25,000 disciplinary referrals. Of these students, CARY served 850 of the highest risk students in the disciplinary system. “It only takes one instance of this to qualify them for CARY, so as you can imagine we have a wide range of students with different backgrounds and behaviors,” said Catalfumo. CARY uses an evidenced-based program called Anger Reduction Training to help students learn how to regulate their emotions and make better decisions. “If a student tells me that they have avoided getting into a fight or some other kind of trouble by using techniques learned in group, I consider that a great success,” Catalfumo added.
The art project was the idea of CARY program director Nicole Gerard and Villareal, a long-time supporter of CARY and seven-year board member. Last February, CARY had organized a showing and auction of its students’ art that was very successful, says Villarreal, in that it proved therapeutically beneficial for the kids. “It got me thinking,” she said. A long-time resident of the Pecan Springs neighborhood, Villareal had just put up a new cedar fence on her corner lot. “Austin is famous for its murals,” she said, “and I thought this might be a fun way for the kids to express themselves.”
In discussing a potential project with the CARY staff, she learned that Catalfumo was not only the youth advisor for kids in the Pecan Springs neighborhood, but also a registered art therapist. Catalfumo took the project on right away, discussing themes with the students, having them draw images that symbolized what community means to them, then incorporating those into one big drawing. In the meantime, Villareal got to work, talking to friends, neighbors, and the Pecan Springs Neighborhood Association who are all chipping in to provide music and food over the weekend.
Already the project is a success, says Villarreal, because it’s giving kids a healthy way to express themselves. “I hope it pulls these kids out of their shells so they can express themselves in a positive way,” she said.