Art, no matter the genre, provides a path of artistic expression. The path leading to Pinnacles Community School in Hollister, a multi-grade school for at-risk youth, is a lonely one, situated on the outskirts of the city and easily overlooked, but not anymore.
With two billboard-sized murals depicting portraits of Cesar Chavez and his partner, Dolores Huerta in the foreground, and the hills of Hollister as the backdrop, the small structure showcases works of artistic creativity not be overlooked.
Both murals are a creation of the students inside the school who are a small group of sixth through 12th graders that were either expelled or who are on probation.
“I’m like the stomping ground to get them back into their comprehensive or traditional school,” Dr. Anne Marie Faria, lead teacher at Pinnacles, said. “So, they’re usually with me six months at the least, to a year. Our kids are the most at-risk kids on the streets.”
Two years ago, when Dr. Faria, who has served in her role for the past 21 years, was asked if she would like her students to participate in the Dreams Project, she was all in.
The Dreams Project offers year-round artistic workshops taught through an artisan residency program to the most underserved and at-risk youth.
“It’s a rotating residency program where we bring in professional teaching artists,” Jennifer Laine, Executive Director of the San Benito Arts Council, said.
Laine’s passion for the Dreams Project is derived from her belief that, “art has the power to transform lives.”
“I think I’m even more passionate about engaging those individuals and communities that don’t have easy access,” Laine said. “We very deliberately try to identify and connect with those communities in our area that are most underserved.”
A key aspect of the program is to offer a multi-disciplinary residency to the at-risk youth through the introduction of visual art, dance and poetry.
Sammy Ramirez, of the Animation Dance Community, is one of the artists involved in the project. When he was approached by the San Benito Arts Council two years ago he, “jumped at the chance.”
“As artists, we believe in the creative process to lead individuals within themselves and discover their unique beauty and competency,” Ramirez said. “It is an honor to feel like a proactive member of the community fighting for Hollister youth. We believe in this county and what it offers.”
Amanda Chiado, Poet Teacher with the Dreams Program, believes that her greatest take-away from her involvement is “investing in our youth, especially those on the fringes.”
“The Dreams Project offers students, who may not otherwise be able to participate in the arts, a deeply meaningful experience of creating through poetry, muralism and the hip-hop dance,” Chiado said. “These experiences give students voice, power, and the knowledge that they can change their surroundings through their creative actions.”
Gavilan teacher and muralist, Arturo Rosette, was the first to take part in the project in 2010. The California Arts Council provided funding from the Community Foundation for San Benito County to launch a year-long residency with Rosette where he worked with the at-risk youth to design a digital mural project.
“These students really are our future,” Rosette said. “I believe so and so do my mural directors and assistants. It is what we do: offer hope and inspiration to those that may need it.”
The first mural was an expression of the student’s dreams and hopes for the future.
“The students co-designed the mural, they came up with the ideas, the imagery, the content, that generated their own meaning to the project,” Laine said.
After 2010 the program lost funding but five years later the California Arts Council, the state art agency of California, launched a new initiative called the JUMP StArts Program, with the goal of engaging at-risk youths in the arts.
“We applied for funding and we re-launched the program and we appropriately titled it the Dreams Project back in 2015,” Laine said.
Through continued funding from the JUMP StArts Program, Laine, and the members of her team were able to expand the program to include Pinnacles Community School.
Providing this creative outlet to the students brings a level of excitement to the school’s staff and the students.
“They, as a group, decided which pieces they wanted to put in the mural,” Dr. Faria said. “So that mural is based upon their own perspectives and research.”
Recent Pinnacles graduate, Andrew Flores, 17, enjoyed the experience.
“It was fun, it was actually quite a good experience honestly,” Flores said. “It was actually something everybody did together, it was kind of like a team.”
Another recent graduate, Ricardo Perez, 18, agrees.
“Just being there with these guys as a team. For us to be able to do that together, it brought us all closer I’d say,” Perez said.
For Angel Ferreira, 16, the project provided a personal connection.
“I enjoyed doing it, I guess because my family has history of working in the fields, so I felt like that represented me,” Ferreira said, adding that he is looking forward to showing the mural to his mom.
Shile Cifuentes, who Dr. Faria refers to as, “the mastermind of all our magic,” has been the guiding hand on the project, mentoring the students from the design process through the completion of the artistic works of art. Cifuentes feels in the time spent with her “kids” she transitioned from teacher to friend.
“We talk, they tell me about their lives, how rough. I’m super glad and happy that I can do that for them,” Cifuentes said, adding that she believes the experience of creating something so tangible will live on in the lives of the students who created it.
“The painting is going to be there forever. They can come look at it with their families,” she said.
The Dreams Project’s proud display at the entrance of the school will hopefully send a message of unlimited possibilities for future Pinnacles students searching for a second chance at life