Urban Arts Fund and Denver Health Outpatient Behavioral Health Services Partnership

Denver’s Urban Arts Fund (UAF) was initiated as a graffiti prevention program. In 2017, the UAF was expanded to develop programming partnerships that focus on community building and social change, addressing diversity, equity, and inclusiveness values.

El Fondo de Arte Urbano de Denver (UAF) comenzó como un programa de prevención de grafiti. En 2017, UAF se expandió para incorporar programas de cooperación enfocados en desarrollo comunitario y en cambio social, basados en los valores de diversidad, equidad e inclusividad.

Urban Arts Fund at the Methadone Clinic 

In Fall 2017, artist Frank Garza worked with Denver Health Outpatient Behavioral Health Services (OBHS) patients and staff to create a series of murals inspired by messages of hope, healing and transformation.

"Like many others across the nation, Denver is in throws of the opioid epidemic. Denver Health’s methadone clinic continues to feel the pressure of need from our community members and everyday our multi-disciplinary teams work to reduce the harm of this ravaging brain disease. Every day, we treat people, we share in our patient’s recovery, and we suffer the loss of over-dose, wondering how we can do more. Every day we are reminded about the devastation of the opioid epidemic on daily newscasts. This is our everyday – while gratifying, the work can become isolating.

Having Denver Arts & Venues join us in our everyday gave us connection to the broader community: connection built familiarity, familiarity led to friendship and with friendship our isolation dissolved. The countless smiles and Frank’s illustrations of empowerment have nurtured our team and patients. Being reminded of this experience while walking through our hallways and linking to blog posts of celebration provides us the courage and hope to continue fighting this epidemic for our community." - Lisa Gawenus, Manager, OBHS, Denver Health

Photos and Blog by Lucia De Giovanni

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NEW PROJECT - Sept. 7, 2017

Yesterday was the start of something beautiful... A few weeks ago, just a couple of days after I returned to Colorado, I was contacted by Mary Valdez, Public Art Administrator for Denver Arts & Venues and the City and County of Denver. Mary and I had met many years ago, when I lived in Denver and was really active in the arts scene thanks to a few photography projects I had done...

Fast forward to many years later, and Mary is one of the major forces behind the Urban Arts Fund, a graffiti prevention and youth development initiative, which actually supports the creation of murals in “up-and-coming” areas (is there any such thing left in Denver?) and has involved, to date, over 3,000 participants who helped in creating some 175 murals around the City and County of Denver. This, my friends, is a thing of beauty. 

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I arrived at the clinic and was pleasantly surprised by the energy of the place.  In the two weeks since our first workshop, Frank had pretty much transformed the first floor.

I couldn't help but notice how the clinic "felt" different...

The workshop started - Frank explained his vision for the murals and how they would take shape along the walls of the clinic. Caterpillars, butterflies, lotus flowers, the symbolism in those images would carry forth a message of rebirth, inspiring each person walking through the clinic. This is a Journey, one that can be visualized in many ways, so why not in the most beautiful of ways? We are surrounded by negativity in the news, in our daily lives, almost every minute of the day one can find heaviness, if you so choose. And when you are struggling with something heavy, the pressure of it can make it hard to breathe.  

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"When my son committed suicide, I lost it"

Those are Bonnie's words, among the few first words she spoke to me when I first met her at the workshop.

They were words that I did not expect, I hadn't prepared a response and I was caught with my camera in front of my face, as a few tears welled up in her eyes. And in mine. What do you say when someone is opening up in such a complete and trusting way, telling you her life's story and the reason why she is here today. I just nodded, and let her speak from her heart. It is my intention to honor that trust, so the story I am sharing is not a biography, but a glimpse into a person's life, a feeling, an understanding of what can make someone fall into addiction and then find the strength to recover, living a full, productive life...

As heartbreaking as that story is, her loss, her struggles, her admitted rough lifestyle, what struck me the most about Bonnie is that she is here today, resolute, on purpose, clearly defining her intention to help others overcome the same struggles and to shine that light at the end of the tunnel.  

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There is a stigma that is associated with addiction, and that is that addiction is a choice.  Once you debunk that notion and separate the person from the behavior, you’re capable of seeing the human being in front of you.  And it starts with that person first.

Addiction is not a sin, a shameful secret to be carried alone.  It is a “very complex response to trauma, to suffering” - Dr. Gabor Maté.  

Prevention, compassion, a medical and human understanding of who is prone to addiction. That’s where Betsy G., Licensed Clinical Social Worker and OMAT Team Lead finds her purpose. She gets up every morning looking forward to seeing her clients and isn’t that the universal need? To be seen. Everyone’s need is the same, to connect, to be seen. But how can you be seen when you carry around such an enormous amount of shame? Betsy’s work begins with reflecting back who she sees, the strong person who came in for help, the determined human being who is not helpless and is instead incredibly resilient. It starts with an understanding of who you really are, and when you have nobody reminding you of the light that you can shine, that light dims. Self actualization is hard for people who have an addiction… it takes someone like Betsy to remind you of the light you have inside, your inherent potential, your great strength that made you survive.

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HEALING - Oct. 20, 2017

"People come here to heal", says John M., one of the clinic's clinical and behavioral support staff.  After talking with John for a while, I know healing goes both ways.

We talked about his role at the clinic, a very busy go-between one with the doctors, where he obviously shines, but I saw something more and started to ask questions.  Born and raised in Denver, he feels the people who come to the clinic are his community, and his need to be of service is so evident that when he told me he would like to pursue social working as a career, I just smiled.  John was the first of his family to go to college, and was lucky enough to have a mentor who helped him navigate through it.  I never thought about it, but it must be absolutely overwhelming to fill out of those forms, financial documents, pick classes, figure out even the smallest things like transportation and schedule as a teenager with nowhere to turn for answers.  And having gone through it, John decided he wanted to pursue a life of service to others.   What makes him the happiest is helping others.  Remarkable.

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MY CUP IS FULL, Nov 9, 2017

If you were to describe an artist, the words humble, patient, unassuming would probably not be the first ones who come to mind.  But that’s who Frank is, and he brought his immense talent into the workshop and into the clinic in the same way he carries himself in his personal life.  He likes his work to be the center of all attention, and when you see the final results below, you see the vibrant colors as expressions of Life, beautiful and full.  He’s the kind of artist who is accustomed to working alone and prefers to let his art come through to the viewer without explanation, you receive the message you are meant to welcome in your life at that precise moment.  He often doesn’t even sign his work and his art becomes a part of you without you even knowing it.  

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