Writings on the wall

Fishtown nat­ive Lois Mida Skalam­era has found strength in art. She over­came a drug ad­dic­tion, and is now us­ing her troubled past as in­spir­a­tion for the fu­ture.

The JEVS Hu­man Ser­vices Achieve­ment Through Coun­sel­ing and Treat­ment (ACT) II cen­ter is at Fourth and Mont­gomery streets, and it once was just an­oth­er build­ing on a mostly des­ol­ate block. 

Save for a few rowhomes, the build­ing sits — flanked by two over­grown, va­cant lots — in an empty stretch of the neigh­bor­hood.

But early last year, JEVS partnered with the City of Phil­adelphia Mur­al Arts Pro­gram to spruce up the bor­ing aes­thet­ics of the build­ing. Artist James Burns, who was com­mis­sioned to cre­ate the mur­al, im­me­di­ately looked with­in the hu­man-ser­vices build­ing for in­spir­a­tion.

In fact, he reached out to JEVS ACT cli­ents for help to cre­ate the design.

“What they wanted to see was rep­res­ent­a­tions of them­selves. They wanted to see their story and they wanted it told,” said Tom Baier, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of JEVS ACT of the early dis­cus­sions about the re­cov­ery mur­al. 

One cli­ent who said she saw her life change drastic­ally through cre­ation of the mur­al is Fishtown nat­ive Lois Mida Skalam­era, who began us­ing drugs as a teen.

The young wo­man, now in her 20s, has struggled with drug ad­dic­tion since she was about 15, ac­cord­ing to the JEVS cen­ter, which, like Skalam­era, con­siders her achieve­ments a story worth telling.

She had turned to harder drugs after the dev­ast­at­ing deaths of her fath­er and grand­moth­er. She be­came ad­dicted to opi­ates and fi­nally sought help after she and her fianc&ea­cute; made a pact to try to turn their lives around.  

Skalam­era had just trans­ferred to JEVS ACT II from an­oth­er treat­ment cen­ter when the mur­al was in its be­gin­ning stages. Be­com­ing in­volved with the mur­al, however, wasn’t ori­gin­ally her idea; she was en­cour­aged to do it after com­plet­ing a po­etry work­shop with Ur­sula Ruck­er on her first day at the re­cov­ery cen­ter.

Her in­terest and hard work aided the cre­ation of the mur­al, called Per­son­al Renais­sance, which fea­tures po­etry writ­ten by people who are work­ing to re­build their lives through re­cov­ery pro­grams. Twelve of the poems are Skalam­era’s.

The mur­al has grown, to the ex­tent that it has reached a stone wall around the park­ing lot. Last month of­fi­cials un­veiled a new piece — a brightly colored and whim­sic­al mur­al called Urb­an Oas­is, by artist Ali Wil­li­ams — on the oth­er side of the build­ing. It’s also the site of a beau­ti­ful “renais­sance garden,” as well as walk­ways, benches and a stage, for use by JEVS cli­ents and the com­munity.

Skalam­era — who has nev­er con­sidered her­self an artist — has put her mark on all of them. She has logged count­less hours in the base­ment of the JEVS ACT II cen­ter while work­ing on 5-foot-by-5-foot por­tions of the mur­al that later would be lif­ted and ad­hered to the wall out­side. 

Even now, she can point to par­tic­u­lar parts of the mur­al and re­mem­ber just how she felt on the day she painted it. She con­tin­ues to work with the Mur­al Arts Pro­gram as part of her ther­apy. 

Her re­cent en­deavors in­clude a sui­cide pre­ven­tion-themed mur­al and one pro­jec­ted for the wall of a path­way in the JEVS ACT II cen­ter. 

In the two years that she’s been act­ive with the JEVS ACT II cen­ter, the art­work has helped her re­cov­ery pro­cess, she ex­plained. 

Toil­ing on the mur­al puts Skalam­era’s mind at ease, she said, wheth­er she’s los­ing her­self in paint­ing the small, te­di­ous de­tails or open­ing up about her struggles to those work­ing around her.

From a clin­ic­al stand­point Baier said, the mur­als have played an im­port­ant part in re­cov­ery for many cli­ents be­cause the concept brings to­geth­er two ground­break­ing meth­ods for re­cov­ery — art ther­apy and group ther­apy. 

Art ther­apy, Baier said, has long been used as a form of treat­ment, but it’s usu­ally used when deal­ing with chil­dren who do not have the com­mu­nic­a­tion skills to talk about their feel­ings. 

But it also works well with sub­stance ab­users be­cause it can help them un­der­stand the sub­con­scious reas­ons that led them to use drugs in the first place, Baier ex­plained. 

Group ther­apy, on the oth­er hand, gets people talk­ing about their is­sues be­cause they feel more com­fort­able dis­clos­ing in­form­a­tion about them­selves around people in sim­il­ar situ­ations, he said.

Baier thinks that mur­als have the power to do even more for re­cov­er­ing in­di­vidu­als. 

For many JEVS cli­ents, these mur­als have been the first step to bring­ing a pur­pose to their new, sober life­styles.

“Many of our cli­ents feel like maybe they haven’t fin­ished something, so for them it’s a sense of ac­com­plish­ment,” said Baier, “They can ac­tu­ally stand out there and point and say, ‘See that part right there – I painted the nose and the left eye.’ And with the po­etry (on the walls around the park­ing lot), they can say, ‘Part of my story is on this wall.’”

Skalam­era agreed. 

“I’ve felt a real sense of ac­com­plish­ment — that this is mine and this I can do,” she said.  ldquo;I’m ac­tu­ally be­ing a part of something else — the smal­ler piece of a big­ger pic­ture.”

In fact, for Skalam­era, work­ing on the re­cov­ery mur­al and oth­er Mur­al Arts pro­grams has helped her re­cog­nize her own po­ten­tial, she ad­ded. 

She re­cently star­ted the pro­cess to en­roll in col­lege courses and is think­ing about ty­ing the knot with her fianc&ea­cute; of six years, Kenny. 

She at­trib­utes her suc­cess in get­ting clean — it’ll be three years in March — to her moth­er, her church and every­one she has en­countered at JEVS.

“The crazy thing is, I’ll say ‘thank you’ to every­one,” said Skalam­era, “and they’ll just look at me and say, ‘But Lois, you did it your­self.’” ••

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