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 Mural Project Helps Students in Juvenile Detention

Students at the East Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility have a chance to express themselves while building self-confidence, learning skills, reducing stress, and beautifying the facility by creating murals as part of an art project at the site.

The effort, named Project Imagine, is a collaboration between the San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) and Combat Arts San Diego. It's funded with a grant from the California Arts Council.

"It's a way for me to express myself that is different from being on the unit every day," one of the participating students said.

Project Imagine has three components: weekly art classes for six months, the creation of three murals, and continued access to the arts after they leave the facility.

SDCOE operates the classrooms in the detention facility as part of the San Diego SOAR Academy, one of its Juvenile Court and Community Schools (JCCS).

Students there are working in small teams to create three separate murals that will be hung on the walls of the facility. The students will also get posters of their work to take home.

"I think the murals are beautiful," Site Administrator Nate Head said. "It promotes artistic expression and students can represent the city of San Diego and be proud of their community."

The work starts with an after-school group planning session where students come up with three to five main points or ideas they want to express in the mural. A teaching artist helps them find visual images to represent those ideas.

Elizabeth Washburn, founder of Combat Arts, then takes those ideas and creates a concept drawing to get approval before the students start painting.

"Working on the mural allows time for me to relax and collect my thoughts," one student said.

Combat Arts is a nonprofit organization built around the belief that art is inherently therapeutic. Washburn started working with combat veterans with traumatic brain injuries before expanding to include students in juvenile detention.

"They love it," Washburn said. "It's an opportunity to do something new, and they're really proud of it."

Amanda Wallace, JCCS visual and performing arts technician, worked with Combat Arts and other community partners to help secure 11 grants this school year through the California Arts Council worth a total of $373,397.

SDCOE's Juvenile Court and Community Schools program educates nearly 5,000 students each year who are either wards of the court or have been referred by social services, Probation, or one of the county's 42 school districts. Services are provided at more than 20 sites across the county to students who are incarcerated, pregnant or parenting, in foster care, expelled, chronically truant, in drug treatment centers and group homes for neglected or abused children, and experiencing homelessness.