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Houston ARTreach: Inspiring Inner City Kids

By Ella Hearrean

Mark DeLeon knows about hard times. Raised in a single parent home in the Sixth Ward, he got into trouble by spraying graffiti on city walls. “My friends and I competed on the streets, seeing how big and how far we could go,” he says. When teachers in an art organization encouraged him to paint on canvas for the first time, DeLeon realized he could go even bigger and farther than the streets. “They pushed me to wake up and see my creative side, to see that I have something.”

DeLeon is one of a group of artists that have gathered for an art collective in support of ARTreach, a nonprofit organization celebrating its 10th anniversary of collaborating with social service agencies to provide art-related programs to the underprivileged and underserved. “I want kids to be inspired by my art,” says DeLeon. “ARTreach pulls gifts out of kids who don’t know much about art — like when I was a kid. That’s how I know it works.”

The 26-year-old artist stands next to his latest set of paintings, a 16 piece exhibit in which he blends the techniques of old masters with his urban graffiti roots. Many of his canvases have been created by tearing apart old furniture and wood. “I enjoy creating from nothing,” DeLeon says.

Like DeLeon, ARTreach Regional Director Chris Gamez creates from nothing. He has transformed an old, 8,000 square foot warehouse in the Third Ward into a vibrant space where kids receive mentoring and free art classes. The 35-year-old rapper and dancer isn’t deterred by dealers who push drugs to kids a few blocks away; Gamez uses the studio to push art and dance to kids who want to express themselves and cope with their problems. 

“We provide a diversion program that is fun and positive but still has what these kids are looking for: unification, brotherhood, masculinity, and leadership. They take care of what they value; if they value themselves, they’ll take care of themselves,” says Gamez.

Inside the studio, graffiti is scrawled on the walls, boldly proclaiming words like “joy,” ”love,” and ”self-control.” Children run excitedly through the rooms while their parents nibble on desserts and gaze at DeLeon’s pieces on the wall. Artists warm up backstage while families and friends chatter about what is to come. The place is bubbling with energy and anticipation.

Gamez uses events like this art collective to raise awareness about ARTreach and its goals. “We want to expose as many children as possible to art who wouldn’t be otherwise. We want to provide after-school programs that are a safe haven for kids to be introduced to gifts and talents they don’t know they have -- to tell them about careers and a future,” he says.

When the lights dim, the crowd stills, and kids watch curiously from the edge of the dance floor. Hannah Anderson is the first to perform. The 19-year-old singer hunches over her guitar, and her voice rolls out an aching story about love. “I teach kids how to take the sounds of heaven and pull them down,” she says.

Next, Mireya Gamez dances to a recording of a spoken word by Oraia.  She sweeps breathlessly across the stage, shadows trailing behind her on the walls, the room enveloped in her intensity. The performances continue on, each melting into the next: Fly dance company skates and break dances its way through a comedic number; spoken word poet Jerome Washington stands under a lone spotlight and tells an earnest story about faith; SonKiss’d dance theater company performs to no music -- just the beat of their stomping and clapping.

The audience alternately laughs in delight or stares in wide-eyed appreciation. Corey Greene, founding member of SonKiss’d, says art is a medium through which people can speak. “We use dance to express, ‘We love you. You are valued. You matter.’”

When the performers line up and bow at the end of the night, the crowd cheers loudly. “My kids and I loved it,” says guest Lizz Moala.

“We can connect everything in life to art.” Another guest, David Williams, agrees. “Art is a way to reach out. It’s about connection and expression. We have to expose ourselves, open our minds, and step out of our box. Tonight was incredible -- I’ll definitely be back.”

Gamez is encouraged by the success of the evening but remains aware of his biggest challenge: providing necessary ARTreach programs to a community that can’t afford them. “If we had the funding, we’d be busy seven days a week,” he says of the art outreach organization, which relies on donations and grants from individuals, foundations, corporations, and government agencies. “For now we’re just focusing on keep our doors open, but I believe in ARTreach so much that I’ve put everything on the line.”

As guests begin to trickle out the door, some unhook from the wall the paintings they’ve purchased from DeLeon and tuck them under their arms. The artist says, “I loved being around people with different talents tonight. It motivates me. I see the effect art has on people -- what it is capable of.” ARTreach inspires him. “They push me. I want to continue to be more creative, to do my best, and to go even farther,” he says.

To donate to or volunteer for ARTreach, go to

Ella Hearrean of Stellar Communications is a Houston-based writer and editor.

ARTreach is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that provides mentoring and art-related programs to a growing population of children at risk, children and adults with special needs, the elderly and others in need.