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Painting A Brighter Future

news2-1Emanuel Project comes to Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall

The silent, hollow halls and squeaky clean interior of the Santa Cruz County Juvenile Detention Center have recently begun to glow with new colors. Giant painted heads with windows for eyes are coming alive in the courtyard; bright stacks of books have begun to illuminate the walls of the cafeteria. The paintings are meant to shed light on the hope and possibilities of the future.

For the past two weeks at the center at 3650 Graham Hill Road in Felton, renowned painter, sculptor, and muralist Emanuel Martinez has been working on the most recent installment of his ongoing project. Joining his own efforts with the 23 youths currently in incarceration at the hall, Martinez says they are building timeless works of art that he hopes will inspire those who enter the center for years to come.

The Emanuel Project, which began in January 2011, is a mission by Martinez and his former-student-turned-philanthropist Louisa Craft to transform the walls of juvenile halls into inspirational murals. As described on its website, the project aims to “[provide] art supplies and creative learning opportunities for incarcerated juveniles, engaging them in the classroom, reducing behavioral problems, and improving academic success.” 

As a part of the project, the Felton juvenile hall received a large donation of art supplies prior to Martinez's arrival.

“Louisa had [previously] donated art materials to low-income schools,” says Martinez. “She was asked to donate materials to a facility once, and decided it was a good idea to create a program that would go into the facilities and get art curriculum going.”

Martinez says the “icing on the cake” was that he would come in at the end and do a mural project.

Martinez’s inspiration for the project evolved from his own experiences as a youth. Once incarcerated himself, he discovered his hidden talents and found salvation through the art program at his facility. Martinez says his found passion was furthered by an artist at the time who had created an apprenticeship for high-risk youth. Becoming his apprentice, Martinez explains, changed his life.

“He was the turning point, he was a blessing to me, he got me on the right path,” Martinez says.

news2-2The staff at Santa Cruz County’s Juvenile Hall say that being selected for the mural project is only one of the things that sets them apart from other correctional facilities. “The [Emanuel] project is about self expression and empowerment for the youth,” reports Sara Ryan, superintendent of the hall. “This mural project is an amazing opportunity, and it is right in line with the work we have been doing for the past 14 years.”

The center’s story, she says, would not be complete without the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI). “The mural project or any of the other programs offered in our facility would not be possible if it had not been for the work we began 14 years ago with the Annie E. Casey foundation.”  Ryan explains that Santa Cruz County was one of the original three model sites in the country for detention reform of this type. For the past 14 years, the Santa Cruz County Detention Center has been working to implement the JDAI’s goals of improving conditions and reducing overcrowding in secure detention facilities.

“We’re always looking for new programs and new opportunities,” says Robert Igarta, assistant division director at the center. Like Martinez, the facility’s staff say they believe in inspiring their students and in helping them discover talents that will be of use to them once released.

“Each day, every person who walks in the doors of our facility shares their experience or knowledge, in hopes of empowering and educating the youth to make good decisions while in and when they leave our facility,” says Ryan. Currently the center is implementing a number of social awareness and work programs from yoga, to origami, to inspirational speeches. Other programs include those run by nonprofit Barrios Unidos, which builds positive self-esteem and cultural pride through activities, education, and job training; and The Beat Within, a creative writing and poetry program that promotes literacy and self-expression.

Through the Emanuel Project, the students are encouraged to find motivation and meaning in art. One student, in particular, who has been at the facility for a number of years, has taken on a sort of mentor role himself with the painting project.

“[Emanuel] tells me what we’re doing, and if the kids have any questions, they ask me,” says the 17-year-old. Though he admits that a major benefit of the project is distraction from daily life in the hall, he also sees that he is gaining much more than just a short escape. “Being a leader is something new for me,” he says. “It’s gonna open up new things for me; it’s exposure to the things that are out there.”

While working on the project, Martinez also takes the time to share with them his own experiences.

“Emanuel's mentoring fosters a focused community scope where students can also have a therapeutic outlet to reflect,” says Bonnie Dankert, lead educator at the juvenile hall’s school. She says that the staff believes every moment can be one that teaches.

“Taking class time to study the artwork of Emanuel Martinez, while learning about his personal story, provides kids with hope, inspiration, and a form of restorative justice,” she says. “When a student paints a mural with him, he is doing more than laying down paint on cinder blocks. He is joining a collective endeavor that focuses on a brighter future.”

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