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A restorative mural unites detained youth

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A group of kids look at the mural they helped paint at Mount View Youth Services Center.
A group of kids look at the mural they helped paint at Mount View Youth Services Center.
Photo: Peter Vo, Rocky Mountain PBS

LAKEWOOD, Colo. A bright light illuminates the wall of the dark gymnasium. Youth and staff crowd around in awe, staring at the soon-to-be mural. Muralist Jolt approaches the wall and starts tracing the planned piece using the projector's lights. This was the start of a week’s worth of work for Jolt and the kids.

But this gymnasium isn’t an ordinary one. It is located inside the Mount View Youth Services Center. A multipurpose center operated by the Colorado Department of Human Services, Division of Youth Services (DYS), the center aims to rehabilitate detained and committed youth through treatment, education, and programming.

This mural project is one of the main pieces of programming at the center. Kids must submit an application to be included in the mural project, then they work together to come up with an idea for what to put on the wall.

Colorado Voices

A restorative mural unites detained youth

“We went through a couple of rounds of what the project is as a concept with the youth, listening to their voices, taking notes, putting their voices into the concept which resulted in this product,” Mike Caires, a 27-year employee with DYS said.

Caires emphasized that this project, as much as it is about putting art on the wall, is more about the kids building communication skills, learning respect, and acquiring the skills need to repair some of the harm that they’ve done.

Artist Jolt was chosen to bring this idea to life. For privacy reasons, Rocky Mountain PBS cannot name the detained youth who worked on the project.

Jolt rearranges the projector so that it displays the stencil on the wall correctly.

“He's worked with us on many of the murals that we've done across the Denver area. He is someone who is very in tune with youth needs, because restorative practices come from a place of need,” Caires explained.

Jolt has been creating projects big and small in the Denver landscape for decades. Coming into this project, Jolt knew it was going to be for the youth, by the youth.

“Once we were able to make it happen, then it's a matter of meeting with the kids, saying, ‘what are the kids' thoughts? What is their mindset, What are they thinking? What do they want to see? What do they want to create for other kids that are here?’” Jolt explained.

Through this process, the young men pitched their ideas, giving feedback and ideas for what they wanted to see on the wall.

“We had a few disagreeing moments, but over time we just had to come together and figure out what we wanted to paint,” one of the participants said.

One by one, participants threw out ideas and slowly, the concept started to come together. One of the parameters of this art piece was that artificial intelligence was going to be used, too, encouraging the kids to think big and utilize the technology to its full potential to create a meaningful piece.

Once the concept was established, Jolt painted the outline onto the gymnasium wall, so that when the youth returned over the next couple of days, they could get right to painting. Through his experience and leadership, Jolt tried to make the kids feel comfortable through the process.

“We got it down because Jolt is a good teacher. He showed as many things in the time span of five days and really, I think it's coming together,” one of the kids said as he painted a wall.

The kids decided that the mural should have a  meaning that they could all relate to. The kid in the middle of the painting is at a crossroads, not sure of where they are going in their life and they’re weighing a choice. On the left is a court or a funeral home or a courthouse, signifying the bad choice. On the right, the kid is seen  graduating as others cheer them on.

As the mural was close to being finished, Jolt took a moment to really emphasize the importance of this collaboration and how much it can mean to the youth. “Now, let's step back. We created this. Now we're proud of ourselves. We've worked as a group together,” he said.

After standing back and looking at the mural, one of the kids said, “this is a beautiful mural that I hope no one ever has to see in person.”


Peter Vo is the journalism intern at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at petervo@rmpbs.org.

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