By Joel Hall
In an effort to draw Forest Park students away from the lure of gang graffiti, a local artist, a city councilwoman, and two schools are channeling the creativity of students toward something positive.
By the end of this year, eight students from Babb Middle School and Forest Park High School will complete a mural at Starr Park.
The mural, "Making it Happen," will be painted over the next few Sundays on the west side of Kiwanis Stadium, near the corner of West Street and Lake Drive. The artwork will feature the themes of academics, community, anti-gang initiatives, and nonviolence.
The project grew out of "Make it Happen," a program started a year and a half ago by Forest Park Councilwoman Sparkle Adams to identify the interests of at-risk youths and connect them with professionals working in those fields.
Adams said the lives of many of the children in the Make it Happen program have been impacted by gangs, through "victimization of affiliation." One of those students, Feliciano Garcia -- a senior at Forest Park High School and an aspiring artist -- is the survivor of a drive-by shooting.
The focus of the mural, as with the program, according to Adams, is to show children that they have options outside of gangs.
"A lot of the students have been touched by gangs," said Adams. "Some of them just didn't see options. These kids are very talented, and some of them saw graffiti as an outlet. This is a way to channel that in a legal, positive manor."
According to Cindy Sellards, a counselor at Babb Middle School who works with the children in the program, half of the students in the group are Hispanic. She said that middle school students, particularly non-English-speaking immigrants, are often targeted by gangs.
"A lot of the kids who come over and don't speak English, they become targets," said Sellards. "They say this place can be dangerous, so why don't you join our group?
"In middle school, there is more pressure than in high school, because this is when they recruit," Sellards continued. "They'll have them do something simple, like tagging or selling some drugs, and then say 'we'll protect you.' When they get to high school, it changes and they say we expect you to car jack or do an armed robbery."
Sellards said that territorial clashes among black, Hispanic, and Asian gangs only add to existing racial tensions at school. She said the mural project gives students of various ethnicities a chance to sort out their differences.
"When you see these kids who are African American, Hispanic, and Asian American working on something together, it's really positive," said Sellards. "Sometimes, when you try to do it in a large assembly, it's too hard. You have to have a smaller group setting. It's easier to talk about those differences and work through them."
Ellen Miller, an East Point-based artist, who specializes in religiously-themed oil and pastel paintings, spoke to students in the Make it Happen program who were interested in art.
While some of the students had participated in graffiti, Miller suggested mural painting as a legal form of public expression. After more than a year of effort, Make it Happen was able to secure a $1,000 community grant from Hamburger Helper to fund the project.
"They were really fascinated in seeing how you could take a two-dimensional piece of art and reproduce it," said Miller. "Kids need a way to express themselves. They need an audience, and a lot of times, adults don't always have the time to provide them that attention. Art can provide that audience.
"Just having that outlet goes a long way in helping kids stay focused on what they need to do," Miller continued. "They are able to see that people are willing to give their time to help them express themselves."
Adams said the mural project is expected to be finished by Dec. 21. She said eventually, she would like to start additional projects by spreading the program to all the schools in the City of Forest Park.
"This is a way to show the kids that they don't have to deface or defame public property, in order to get a message across," said Adams. "Hopefully, other people will see their work and they will be proud of what they've done."