About 250 works of art – some digital, some recycled, some graffiti and some unfinished – hang on the walls of the Life Track Art Gallery and Youth Center in downtown Medford, while another 120 pieces are tucked away in closets, drawers and wooden trunks just waiting to be displayed.
The gallery and youth center at 106 S. Grape St. opened in January, giving at-risk youths age 10 to 22 a space to express themselves creatively, hang out and open up about issues they are facing, such as bullying, depression, suicidal thoughts and substance abuse.
Last October, OnTrack Inc. and Phil Ortega’s art-not-graffiti program, LIFE Art, formed a collaborative partnership, Life Track, around a $225,000 grant from Providence Health Plan Community Benefits Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation.
With the money, Life Track was able to rent the new space and pay for art supplies and four part-time staff – two mentors, a case manager and a grant administrator.
“Kids who were struggling before had to deal with their stress in isolation, but now they have a caring environment where they can drop in and find the support of mentors throughout the week,” Ortega said.
The Life Track project was formed, in part, as a response to Jackson County’s growing need for suicide intervention.
Jackson County had the second-highest number of youth suicides in the state between 2003 and 2010, and emergency visits for youth experiencing mental health crises increased by nearly 150 percent between 2008 and 2012, according to data provided by Rita Sullivan, executive director of OnTrack.
“(Life Track) really was in recognition of the high rates of bullying, suicide, gangs and substance abuse that existed in the valley,” said Sullivan. “The idea was to take the traditional clinical services OnTrack offered and combine those with the grassroots efforts of Phil Ortega because we know that some kids express themselves better through art.”
This summer, Life Track hosted poetry jams, an anti-bullying campaign, educational forums, Saturday art classes, Art with a Purpose sessions for topic-based expression, and various art-centered groups, such as the Young Men’s Group and the Girls Exhibiting Many Strengths – or GEMS – group.
On a recent Saturday, more than 33 youths squeezed into the 1,200-square-foot space for watercolor and video production classes, Ortega said.
Some students accessing OnTrack’s school-based counseling and treatment services express an interest in art and are referred to Life Track, which provides a “prosocial” outlet, said case manager Tyrone McDonald, who is at the gallery four days a week. Other students are referred to the program by Jackson County Mental Health or school staff.
McDonald said about half of the youths he works with on Saturdays and in the Young Men’s Group are walk-ins.
This fall, Life Track will bring programs such as Finding Focus, GEMS, Art with a Purpose and the Young Men’s Group to several local schools.
On a recent Friday, Miriam Banuelos, 19, a freshman at Rogue Community College, was at the gallery working on a group art project for her alma mater, Eagle Point High School.
Banuelos said she gave up art in middle school after a bully tore one of her works in half and teased her for being Hispanic.
Then, when Banuelos was a junior in high school, Ortega saw some of her paintings and encouraged her to join Life Art. Since then, she’s helped mentor middle school girls through the GEMS program and completed nearly a dozen of her own paintings, which she describes as “Chicano style.” She’s also recently gotten into Japanese animation.
On Fridays and Saturdays, she shows up at the Life Track gallery to work on personal and group projects.
“I’m really shy, so Life Track has helped me meet different people and open up,” she said, adding that now she doesn’t have to paint in her kitchen at home.