For the past seven years, thousands of Colorado teens have decided to “rise above” and paint murals instead of using drugs.
Empowering them is the Rise Above Colorado, a statewide substance prevention nonprofit that provides teens with “information, resources and healthy lifestyle alternatives to help them choose a life free of drug abuse,” according to its website.
“When youth feel connected and a sense of belonging in their community, they’re much less likely to use drugs and alcohol,” said Rise Above Colorado Executive Director Kent MacLennan.
MacLennan added that it’s not just a “don’t do drugs” message.
“It’s sharing the positive choices that most teens make,” he said.
That’s how the murals come in.
In early August, about 40 teens created the organization’s 50th youth-led mural project. It is located on the outside of a building at 788 S. Broadway, which borders Denver’s West Washington Park and Baker neighborhoods.
The murals provide the youth with “a sense of completion and ownership,” said Rise Above Colorado Program Director Jonathan Judge, who has been involved with all 50 murals. “They see it (a mural project) from beginning to end with their ideas and concepts. The catalyst is always the youth.”
Rise Above Colorado started the youth-led murals in 2015. They are located across the state, with a number of them — including the 50th capstone mural — in Denver.
For the 50th mural, the youth worked with Denver artist Pat Milbery, who is known for his Love This City murals that can be found throughout Denver.
Milbery said he enjoys working with the teens.
“If you can help pass the lessons, vision and wisdom to the younger generations — and do it with fun — it resonates through as an enjoyable process,” Milbery said.
Through working on the murals, the youth learn to believe in something and it teaches them the importance of collaboration, Milbery said.
The 50th mural in Denver is located where Broadway turns into Lincoln, just past I-25 heading north. Here, the youth are “putting their mark on a wall that, on average, 500 or 1,000 cars will drive by each day,” Milbery said. “They get a sense of achievement.”
Though Rise Above Colorado may be best known for the youth-led murals, the murals are not the only community-involvement avenue that the organization offers.
“Not everyone is going to serve the community in the same way,” said Andrea Macias, who volunteers on the organization’s board of trustees. “Rise Above Colorado gives youth the platform to serve their community how they see fit.”
Macias, now 25, got involved with Rise Above Colorado when she was 14. A Rise Above Colorado project that she and her peers worked on when she was a teen is a website with all the “good, bad and ugly” about drug use, Macias said. The website has nonbiased information about drugs — complete with nonbiased facts, stories, solutions and alternatives to drug use.
“We learn a lot from our peers. A lot the time, our peers are our biggest influence,” Macias said. “The website was written by teens for teens (because) more times than not, teens will make the right choices when presented with nonbiased information from their peers.”
Now a resident of Henderson, Macias grew up in west Denver and has always been active in her community. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Denver in 2021, graduating with a major in history and a double minor in critical race and ethnic studies and sociological studies. She is currently employed as a college recruiter for Emily Griffith Technical College in Denver.
As a first-generation college graduate and a woman of color, Macias said she believes it’s important to do her part to bring the community up with her.
“A lot of these issues, such as drug abuse, impact communities of color disproportionally,” Macias said.
She added that by sitting on Rise Above Colorado’s board, she is able to be a part of that mentorship and guidance.
“Just because I struggled, it doesn’t mean that others have to,” she said.
Rise Above Colorado got its start in 2009 as the Colorado Meth Project. In 2014, it broadened its focus to all substance use prevention and changed its name to Rise Above Colorado. Rise Above Colorado also partners with other community and youth-serving organizations, such as Denver Public Schools and Denver Health.
Rise Above Colorado “has the ability to highlight the best in our youth and our communities,” said Pamela Gould, director of Jefferson County Communities That Care, which is a program of Jefferson County Public Health that partners with Rise Above Colorado.
Gould recalled a recent conversation that she had with a father who said his tween-aged son was struggling with making good decisions.
Rise Above Colorado “was a break-through for him,” Gould said. “It was just being a part of something and being involved with art and community” that helped the son.
Littleton’s Allison Dame, 15, has been involved with Rise Above Colorado for a little more than a year. As a teen action councilmember, she serves as an advisor and helps her peers have their voices heard.
“A lot of times, we don’t get heard,” Dame said. “But we have very strong opinions on what the world should look like and what we can do for positive change.”
But Dame also enjoys being part of the organization for the social aspect, she said.
“I love helping people, and being kind is one of my life values,” Dame said. Rise Above Colorado “is a large and very kind community to be a part of.”
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