After wrapping up the first year of her master of fine arts program at Yale, Maria de los Angeles came home for the summer to a community still grappling with the fatal deputy-involved shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez.
The kids who knew Lopez or went to school with the teen have spent the past nine months voicing their anger and grief over the Oct. 22 shooting by sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus, who reportedly mistook a BB gun Lopez was carrying for an assault rifle it was designed to resemble. De los Angeles said many of the kids lack other outlets to cope with their friend’s death.
“They’re heartbroken and need help,” she said.
She sprung into action, launching within weeks of her arrival a free children’s art program at Cook Middle School, where she and Lopez had been students. She also rallied support from local businesses and community leaders, who have been donating to the project, One City Arts, aimed at helping kids with the healing process, De los Angeles said.
“Through the arts, they can express themselves and deal with emotions,” the 25-year-old artist said.
On a recent morning, she instructed the dozens of students packed in the classroom to draw from memory their neighborhood. Luis Diaz, who said he was friends with Lopez since both were 1 year old, drew a picture of a street and sidewalk. The 13-year-old drew the street where Lopez was killed, De los Angeles pointed out.
“They’re telling us what they feel,” she said. “(But) they’re not talking about it. They’re drawing it.”
She’s also working with the kids on painting a mural to memorialize Lopez. She said the kids hope to display at the site where Lopez was shot, which county officials hope to turn it into a park.
“It takes our minds off things,” Lisbet Mendoza, a 16 year-old girl who has been active in the protests, said about the art program.
After the Lopez shooting, various groups held community forums to allow residents to air their concerns and grief. Mental-health professionals came into the schools to meet with children.
“Our response was immediate. I was personally at Cook Middle School two days after the shooting,” said Elizabeth Goldman, Social Advocates for Youth’s counseling services program manager.
She said the organization continued to have a counselor on campus until December. However, about a half-dozen kids and their families continued to seek services at their facility off campus. Although some kids suffered previous traumas, Goldman said the shooting triggered more mental-health problems. She said many suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and struggled with suicidal thoughts.
“Many talked about having difficulty at school, (like) zoning out, which is a reaction to trauma,” she said. “Of course, there was a lot of anger, but there’s also hurt, sadness and confusion.”
However, Goldman added there’s a lot of work to be done to help kids cope with the tragedy.
Cook Middle School Principal Linsey Gannon said she was thrilled to see several of her students in the art classes after such a “challenging year.”
“I believe through art there’s always an opportunity for healing,” she said.
Dozens in the community think so, too. They’re pitching in to help the art project, which De los Angeles hopes to resume next summer.