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Activities / Creative Corner / Events / Health / Non-Profit

Homeless shelter’s art club brightening kids’ lives

Julissa Valdivia, 9, and Karen Vazquez, 16, share a smile at the weekly informal art-club meeting at Joshua Station, a homeless shelter. 
“That’s a really bright yellow. I like that yellow better,” said 10-year-old Lizzy Garcia as she watched a companion squeeze out some paint into a pie tin.

She was one of about a dozen children animatedly discussing colors and sharing ideas across two tables Friday afternoon as they took part in their weekly informal art club.

The scene looked like the picture of childhood normalcy. And that is the point.

All the participants are current or past residents of Joshua Station, a homeless shelter for 26 families in a renovated former 1960s-era motel adjacent to Interstate 25 near West Eighth Avenue.

One or both parents of many of the children have struggled with a range of challenges — addiction, medical conditions and, in about the half the cases, legal issues — that helped sink them into homelessness.

Penny Salazar-Phillips, Joshua Station’s director, said the art club offers the children an oasis where they can express themselves in a way that most had not been able to before.

“It’s a fun time — the little kids enjoy it — but it goes beyond that in terms of them having a place where somebody is paying attention to them and encouraging that creativity and that voice in them,” she said.

The club will step into the public spotlight Friday, when Joshua Station hosts its first art show and sale from 6 to 8:30 p.m., with proceeds going toward the purchase of more art supplies.

Besides artworks by the young club members, there will be pieces by the shelter’s adult residents and staff, as well as some by outside professional artists who have agreed to take part and donate a share of any proceeds they might garner.

The show is the brainchild of Karen Vazquez, an enterprising 16-year-old artist and Joshua Station resident who began the club for elementary students a year ago with the encouragement of volunteer Nicole Edwards.

“I just like spending time with the kids, and I usually have free time on Fridays,” Vazquez said. “Almost all of them got here at the same time as I did, and so I have real ly, really good friends.”

The East High School junior, who hopes to be an artist or a pediatrician one day, arrived at Joshua Station with her mother and four brothers and sisters in November 2009.

“I was born in a rough neighborhood in Guanajuato, Mexico,” she wrote in a biography that accompanied one of her artworks last year. “We moved to America when I was 4 years old. My first language was Spanish, but I learned English pretty quickly, since my first year in school was in America.”

Shortly after moving into the shelter, Vazquez, who has studied art for three years, began taking part in a teen art club there. That led several months later to her beginning the Friday art club for children ages 5-11.

“She is just 16 years old, and she has come from a family that has had a lot of hardships, and she’s struggled with a lot of obstacles,” Edwards said, “but she just seems to hold on to hope and encouragement, and she’s really good at showing that through her art and getting other people involved in that.”

As Ruben Valdivia, 10, was putting the finishing touches on a colorful image of a benign-looking dragon Friday afternoon, Vazquez made a few suggestions, and he happily complied.

“I mixed different kinds of colors in the sky — pink, blue and purple,” he said, explaining that he sketched the image first and then filled it in with paint.

When the work was done, Vazquez set the piece alongside another 15 or so that were drying on a ledge that runs below a row of windows in what was the motel’s restaurant. It now serves as the shelter’s community room.

The art club is one in a spectrum of activities available to residents, who live at Joshua House for two years. There are summer camps, dances and community service for the youths, and classes for adults ranging from parenting and conflict resolution to cooking and crafts.

When Mile High Ministries opened Joshua House in 2001, it provided only physical shelter. But that quickly evolved, as administrators saw the broad-based needs of the people coming there.

“We just wanted to provide a safe place where people could get back up on their feet and then quickly realized that folks need a lot more help than just a roof over their head,” Salazar-Phillips said.

As Friday’s art show makes clear, few residents have flourished more in this transitional environment than Vazquez.

“I’m just really encouraged by Karen,” said Jackie Nuxoll, a volunteer who founded Joshua Station’s teen art club. “I can see that she’s got a little bit of an entrepreneurial spirit in her, and she’s got a lot of vision and isn’t afraid to do things.”

By Kyle MacMillan

photo: Hyoung Chang

Mile High Mamas
Author: Mile High Mamas

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