Young people ‘are at the heart of everything we do’

Art from Ashes empowers youth through creative expression


When Daniella Riggio first got involved with Art from Ashes about five ago, she was a homeless teen struggling with mental health issues.

Today, the 22-year-old serves as a youth ambassador for Art from Ashes.

Art from Ashes “provides a super-strong foundation where youth can express their emotions in a healthy way,” Riggio said. “I can organize the chaos in my head on paper, and it helps me to not feel so stressed out.”

Riggio is a single mom who is raising a 10-month-old son. She recently relocated from Denver to another undisclosed Colorado city to raise her son in a safe location. Riggio has always enjoyed creative writing, she said. But Art from Ashes helped her realize that she was “really good at it,” and that being able to express herself through the written word has helped her clear her head, Riggio said.

Art from Ashes is a “nonprofit that encourages creative empowerment through artistic expression for struggling youth age 9 to 24,” states its website. It is located at 1310 W. 10th Ave. in Denver’s Lincoln Park neighborhood but serves youth across the metro-area. With its programs currently taking place virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic, youth from anywhere are welcome to participate.

Focusing on three core values — expression, connection and transformation — Art from Ashes accomplishes its mission through two main youth empowerment programs. The programs are Phoenix Rising, which uses poetry and spoken word to re-imagine an inner narrative; and Drawing on Air, which uses a non-verbal outlet for expression. Another program, called Casting Shadows, which will use creative play and theater, is still in development.

Art from Ashes’ youth programs are focused on youth who feel they’ve fallen through the cracks of society — whether it be education or social services, for example — but any youth is welcome, said Adriel Long, the organization’s board president.

All youth programs are free, and each workshop features an adult community member as a guest artist who is a professional public speaker, poet or writer.

Phoenix Rising is a nationally known program for youth that got its start by Catherine O’Neill Thorn in 2003. O’Neill Thorn had a strong background with using poetry and spoken word to help struggling youth, including those in juvenile detention facilities and treatment centers, and held post-trauma workshops for Columbine High School students following the school shooting tragedy on that occurred on April 20, 1999.

“Art from Ashes provides not only a safe space, but a brave space,” said O’Neill Thorn, who serves as the organization’s executive director. “It has been our experience that young people often want to tell their stories. Stories of hope and pain, of despair and of dreams. There are so few adults willing to listen with all our hearts — and listen without judgement, without interruption, but with compassion and understanding.”

One takeaway about Art from Ashes is that it is not therapy nor a writing/drawing class, Long said. Rather, she added, the purpose is to empower youth through creative expression and personal transformation.

“Now more than ever, my hope is that people remember how important youth are,” Long said. “Especially in these distant times, youth still need to feel connected. Their words have power and they mean something.”

Youth today are “constantly being judged, graded and told what to do and where to be,” said Sarah Lanzarotta, Art from Ashes’ director of programs. Art from Ashes is a place where youth don’t have to feel the pressures of doing things “the right way,” or worried about following rules and guidelines to get a good grade, Lanzarotta added.

“Because there isn’t a right or wrong way to creatively express yourself. It’s really freeing for them,” she said of the youth participants. “They have a lot to say and sometimes don’t even realize it until they get to write creatively.”

Jessica Jarrard has been involved with Art from Ashes for about six years. She participates in the organization’s adult workshops and is the organization’s former director of operations. She now serves as the grant writer for Art from Ashes.

“When young people speak their truths and connect with others, transformation can happen on both sides,” Jarrard said. “Young people recognize their value, and adults are reminded of the wisdom and courage of youth.”

Writing has always been a healthy coping method for 15-year-old Pandora Trevino of Denver, she said.

“Even if you can’t say it out loud,” Trevino said, “just putting it down on paper and closing the notebook, or even throwing the paper away, is much better than keeping it bottled up inside.”

Art from Ashes is an “amazing safe space where people actually listen to you,” Trevino said. She added that she has been involved with Art from Ashes for about eight months, and said she is thankful to be involved with the organization. So much so that she became a youth ambassador soon after she attended her first Phoenix Rising workshop.

“Phoenix Rising … means that out of the ashes of despair comes healing and magic,” O’Neill Thorn said. “I’ve seen it happen for tens of thousands of youth. And while the community is richer for their voices and their wisdom, the young people themselves are the reason (for Art from Ashes). They are at the heart of everything we do.”


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