San Marcos,
09:04 AM

Art Helps Students See beyond Disabilities

By Katie Chappell

Everyone has a creative streak inside of them just waiting to be discovered. For the clients of Mountain Shadows Outreach Services and the CSUSM students that work alongside them, creativity has come through a powerful mural project that brings together artists, students and disabled adults to create art that transcends the canvas.

On Friday afternoons during the school year, student volunteers from CSUSM’s Tukwut Leadership Circle (TLC), a leadership development program of Student Life and Leadership, work one-on-one with disabled clients to create art for murals. What started with a 48-foot wall in the Mountain Shadows facility has expanded to other spaces in the facility and artwork that has been sent across the country.

Mountain Shadows Outreach Services is a day program in San Marcos for adults with developmental disabilities that strives to advance the growth of each individual by enhancing life, leisure and work skills.

“It has had a really exciting and positive effect on our clients to be a part of creating such large pieces of art,” shared Arlene Galvan, the director of program development at Mountain Shadows. “Arts are a means of communication that people of all abilities can use. It’s so beautiful to see communities collaborate together to create art that has such a big impact.”

Through the M:POWR project (an acronym for Mountain shadows: Painting Our World Radiantly), the student volunteers become friends and mentors to the clients, providing assistance such as holding paint trays, gently guiding or steadying hands and providing encouragement as they create vibrant art in their space.

“I haven’t been around a lot of people with disabilities before this project,” said Heaven Quiban, a CSUSM senior communication major who volunteers with the mural project. “I was a little anxious at first, but once you start painting, you stop thinking about how to interact and realize that the clients are just people too. When I see a client pick up a paint brush, it makes me feel more confident and comfortable with myself.”

In addition to volunteering, students in the Tukwut Leadership Circle program participate in workshops and other campus and civic engagement opportunities. Coordinator of Student Involvement Shannon Nolan helped to create the mural project through the TLC program and says it has a life-changing impact on the students who participate. Throughout the process, students are forced to wrestle with what it might be like to be developmentally disabled, and also to recognize the value and humanity in every person they work with.

“It’s amazing to see their perceptions of disabilities completely shattered,” said Nolan. “Through this project our students are learning how to be inclusive, to see beauty in all people, to communicate in new ways and to recognize that we are part of a greater diverse community where everyone should be honored and included.”

Recognition from The United Nations

The artistic inspiration and resources for the M:POWR mural project came from Joanne Tawfilis, a local artist and the creator of Art Miles, a nonprofit art organization which helps groups create murals that bring healing, education and cultural awareness.

Tawfilis became connected with the University through Marilyn Huerta, a local artist and the communication specialist in the College of Education, Health and Human Services, who have worked together on many other artistic projects with Cal State San Marcos students and the community. Tawfilis was thrilled by the prospect of bringing students and Mountain Shadows clients together to create something beautiful on and off the canvas.

“Murals are not as much about the finished artwork as they are about the process,” said Tawfilis. ”When you bring people together they are able to express themselves individually and as a group, and through that artistic dialog they get to know and understand each other.”

In addition to being an artist and art advocate in the region, Tawfilis is a commissioner with United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Because Art Miles is an official project of the United Nations, students who participate in the mural project can earn a certificate from UNESCO – a great addition to their resume because it demonstrates their ability to relate to and communicate with people who are different from them.

“The UNESCO certificate is great for my portfolio, but the real value has been getting to know and work with Joanne and the clients,” shared Quiban. “I’ve learned a lot from volunteering my time for something so much bigger than myself. When I graduate I will be looking for a job where I can give back and make an impact on people’s lives.”

Now that the walls of Mountain Shadows have been covered in murals, the group has moved on to a restoration project: helping refresh murals originally painted by children for the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific.