>>JESSICA PETROKOWSKI: I love to paint landscapes.
I just think of a bunch of places in my head that would be like safe places. I don’t know.
And I just paint them.>>MODERATOR: This is Jessica Petrokowski.
At seventeen years old, she’s dealt with drug abuse in her home as well as depression
and schizophrenia. But her life began to change when she entered the San Diego area nonprofit
A Reason to Survive, or ARTS, which helps young people develop their creative talents.
She’s now a college-bound student and public speaker on ARTS’ behalf.>>JESSICA PETROKOWSKI: Just their support
and like – and how everybody was so friendly there made me feel really safe. And just it
made me – it inspired me because I saw so many artists there. And like a lot of artists
are there. And so, I just love being around that environment. I knew I could always draw,
but I got, like, some paints and then I just started painting on my closet door. And then
I was like, whoa. I can – I can paint. That was cool. That’s when I first noticed that
I could do something pretty.>>MODERATOR: For founder Matt D’Arrigo, her
story is proof of how creativity can help young people overcome trauma.>>MATT D’ARRIGO: We’ve got a lot of Jessica’s
in the program. Seventy-seven percent of our students are identified as having mental health
and challenges. So for us it’s – when you take a look at Jessica and she started
with ARTS a year ago. Previously, she was constantly in the hospital and hurting herself
and attempted suicide. In the last year, she hasn’t hurt herself and she’s mentally
stronger. And that can be repeated. We’ve got Jessica. We’ve got Carla. We’ve
got Diego. We’ve got DJ. They’re all very similar stories. They’re given a false sense
of identity by society. I mean, they’re labeled as homeless or runaway or at-risk.
And to hear that again and again and again, that’s a big leap. That’s what defines them.
I’m homeless. It’s a negative sense of who they are. Without that sense of identity,
you lack purpose. Everybody’s born with certain interests and talents and passions.
And that’s what gives them self-value. We’re located in National City, California
which is the poorest city per capita in San Diego County. High rates of domestic violence,
violent crime, unemployment, gang activity. And that’s the identity of the community. For us, environment is key. Environment can
change behaviors. And so we spent the last two years converting the inside of the ARTS
center. When I say we, it’s really the students, and we’re supporting them, the artists.
Because we didn’t have to raise tons of money. What we have is sweat equity. We have
talented artists and designers and lots of creative kids. So they’ve taken an active process in transforming
the space and it’s beautiful. It’s colorful. It’s bright. And they own it. You know,
it empowers them and they feel a sense of ownership and it’s their building. The schools with an entire school, right?
And we’ll do a big mural or a big public art. And the kindergarteners will come out.
And we say who here is an artist? Everybody raises their hand. First graders, second graders,
who’s an artist? Hands go up, but less. And then you get up to sixth grade, seventh
grade, like a couple of hands go up. So we’re all connected to the arts from birth. We’re
all artists when we’re little. And so we all have it in us. So that’s why I feel like it’s one of the
powerful tools in the work that we do and everybody in the field knows that it’s a great
way to connect with kids and connect back to their core and their roots. The kids we
work with, when you think about it, they don’t have a lot of choices day-to-day. And to empower
them with I can try this, this, this, they might go into the visual arts and enjoy it,
but then go to a music program after they find their voice. That’s where they can express
themselves. Or they might do it through writing. So it’s really the arts are an easy way
for kids, a non-threatening way for kids to express themselves. What’s hard to say in
words can come out through the arts.>>JESSICA PETROKOWSKI: When I paint, it just
takes me somewhere else. It just makes me feel safe and it just like – I don’t know,
makes me me. Yeah, I’m an artist. That’s me.