NEWARK, OHIO, USA — Working with Newark artist Susan Bierlein, more than 75 middle and high school students painted pictures of the things they’ll choose to do instead of drugs or alcohol.
Susan Boitnott is passionate about writing and photography. Parker Smart enjoys singing and playing music. This summer, they learned they can’t do the things they love if they use alcohol or drugs. They’re hoping to share that message with others in a big way. For the last few months, members of the YES Club, have been working on a mural beneath the bridge where Hudson Avenue goes under Ohio 16. Their work will be unveiled during a ceremony on Aug. 23.
“It’s almost a public declaration,” Bierlein said. “They are standing up and saying, ‘This is what I’ll do.’ They can do things that are healthy and make them happy.”
Bierlein knows firsthand the devastating effects of substance use. She’s struggled with alcoholism for the last seven years. As part of her recovery process, she decided she wanted to use her artistic abilities to give back to the community. She contacted the staff of the YES Club and began speaking to members at the end of the school year. She talked about her own experience with addiction, shared statistics and answered all their questions as honestly as possible.
“I think a lot of kids don’t see themselves in that position (of being addicted),”she said. “I think kids think, ‘That won’t be me.’ I’m here to tell them it could be, and I don’t want it to be.”
Talking to Bierlein gave the YES club members the chance to share personal experiences and ask questions about loved ones who’ve experienced addiction.
“The kids opened up to her and told their own stories,” said Amanda Vozzella, director of programing at the YES Club. “They felt comfortable sharing.”
After talking to the YES Club members once a week, Bierlein began working with them to select and sketch their healthy alternative to substance use.
Some drew pictures of sports equipment. Others drew instruments, books or art supplies.
Even kids who didn’t have a lot of experience drawing were able to participate and create something original, Vozzella said.
“We’ve heard a couple of the kids say how great it was that they got to paint something that gets to be permanent,” she said.
Using donated paint, Bierlein divided the space under the bridge into 40 colored squares. Each club member took turns painting a piece of the mural.
With the projects in the final stages, both the kids and the staff at the YES Club are excited that everything came together, said Erin Ours, activities supervisor at YES.
“I think it’s a unique experience because 20 or 30 years from now, they can bring their kids here and it will be a reminder that they were part of this and what it felt like to be part of this,” she said.
The mural can serve as a reminder for everyone who worked on it of the lessons they learned this summer and the friendships they made, she said.
“If they ever find themselves in a bad place in life, they can look at this and it might give them a glimmer of hope,” she said.
Bierlein said working with the club members to complete the mural has been an inspiration.
“Every time I tell them, ‘I’m still sober. Thank you. This helps me,’” she said. “(This mural) is a public declaration for me that I want to be sober.”
Even after they leave the YES Club, Bierlein said she hopes the kids will remember her message.
“I want them to understand there are people out there they can talk to — adults they can trust,” she said. “But what I really wanted them to get out of it is, don’t start (using drugs and alcohol). Choose something else.”
Susan, 15, said she has a loved one dealing with alcoholism. For her, painting the mural was meaningful.
“We put it there so everyone can see it,” she said. “It’s another way to show support.”
Parker, 12, said he wants the mural to make other middle and high school students stop and think.
“I think it can make a difference,” he said. “Maybe people will see it and do something else.”