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 fiancé 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.’”
“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 fiancé 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.’” ••