These four bright colored words stretch across the walls of the Kids Café game room at the Damiano Center in Duluth, Minn. This mural is a joint production of kids who come to the café and the new director Oscar Lopez.
“It was kind of my way of introducing myself to them to work on something together, work on unity,” said Lopez. “There’s a magic thing about murals.”
The Kids Café is an after-school program for children from kindergarten to eighth grade. It was established 10 years ago in response to seeing unsupervised children in the soup kitchen at the Damiano Center. This center is a resource for low-income, unemployed, and people in need. They provide services such as their soup kitchen, clothing exchange, and social services. The Kids Café supports on average 20 to 30 children each day.
Growing up and going to school in California, Lopez used to tutor students in after school programs. He is a native Spanish speaker and taught several Spanish-speaking students English. He graduated with his Bachelors Degree in Fine Arts from Syracuse University and hopes to go to grad school some day.
Lopez became the new coordinator in June 2011 after the previous coordinator retired. He is known for his work with children and teens at Life House and Bethany Crisis Center in Duluth. Aside from his coordinator position, Lopez is also a muralist.
“They’re a good way of bringing the community together,” said Lopez.
His recent mural is painted at Cascade Park called “Unity in the Community.” The mural spans across what use to be a white wall. His section includes an image of a tree on the shoreline with Duluth’s lift bridge in the background using different shades of blue. The mural is split in half by the corner of the wall, with one side showing day and the other side night.
It was his idea to create the mural in the Kids Café game room.
Lopez wanted to get involved with the children because he knew it was going to be a big change for them. They were used to the previous coordinator, who was there for 10 years, and Lopez wanted to be able to establish trust and build a foundation for a new relationship with the children.
“We provide a safe place after school, healthy meal, and a place to practice social skills,” said Lopez.
Isaac, 12, goes to the Kids Café every day after school and worked on the game room mural this past summer.
“It was awesome,” said Isaac as he pointed to his painted green boot on the wall. “He [Lopez] supplied the paint and everyone got to do anything they want.”
“I want to be able to give them an opportunity to do things that they can’t normally do,” said Lopez.
Lopez said how he appreciates the community making contributions to the Kids Café.
“Most rewarding thing is pulling resources from the community and people of expertise to make things happen,” said Lopez.
Lopez brought in Joan Linski who is now their intern. She is a student at UW Superior working on her masters in art therapy. Linski goes to the Kids Café and works on an art project with the children. This week their project was finger painting.
“I knew it was going to make a huge mess but I didn’t care,” said Linski as she wiped off paint from the tile floor.
Linski told the children that their completed pieces were to be used the following week to make a collage.
Cecily, 7, dipped her hands in trays of green and blue paint.
“I like to paint. I want to paint all day,” said Cecily after getting paint on her shirt. “It’s okay if I get my shirt dirty. It’s an old shirt.”
Lopez wants to make sure the children can express their creativity and also establish communication skills through these activities at the Kids Café.
Lucy Meade is the assistant coordinator at the Kids Café and works with Lopez.
“He is an awesome boss,” said Meade. “He’s a fun guy, really good with kids and the kids love him. He has his heart in it. He got the kids together to do this awesome mural.”