Where is Tallinn, Estonia? This was the question on my mind as I walked out of the plane and onto the tarmac, suddenly realizing that I was embarrassingly ignorant about the location for the latest installment of the Adding Color To Lives mural arts youth initiative. I mean, I had a vague notion that Estonia was one of those small, Eastern European country that was once in the Soviet sphere until it all came crashing down in the early ‘90’s, but that was about the extent of my knowledge. With a little help from my phone, I realized that I was right on the Baltic Sea, and would soon learn much more with the help of some upbeat, creative young people who I would have the privilege of working with.
Tallinn’s local Park Inn hotel had developed an awesome plan for a community outreach program in which its employees would participate in activities with youth from a local in-patient drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, bonding with them and forming positive relationships that would assist them in their recovery. As part of this innovative Responsible Business initiative, I was brought in to facilitate a community-based mural project with the kids as well as the hotel employees. On the first day, I arrived at the rehab center to a packed room of over 30 teenagers and even children as young as 11, none of whom knew what to expect. Many were shy or distracted, but the arts have an amazing ability to stimulate conversation and engage those who may otherwise remain uninterested.
By midway through the workshop, the kids were laughing and shouting as they competed in an intense game of Pictionary, followed by an engaging discussion that focused on our mission for the day: to decide on the imagery and subject matter for our mural, which we would begin the next day in a popular area of the city. It was big responsibility! After coming up with a long list of themes and then a focused sketching session, in which each participant drew their ideas on paper, we collectively created our mural design that included everyone’s input, but focused on one main scene. The inspiration for this central image was an epic battle between the mythological national hero Kalevipoeg and the demon, Sarvik, which would serve as a symbol of the battle that the young mural painters were fighting against their own demons.
The first thing one must know before working with youth in Estonia is that the country has a large Russian-speaking population along with the Estonian majority, and the two groups live quite separate lives in which they often can’t even speak the same language. At the rehab center, the Estonian kids spoke varying levels of English in addition to their native Estonian language, whereas the Russian-speaking kids often spoke no English and only a little Estonian. Luckily for me, in swooped Olga to save the day! Olga, who works for Park Inn and did much of the organizing of the project, spoke fluent Russian, Estonian and English, and would spend the project doing linguistic gymnastics as she constantly switched between the three languages in a tireless effort to ensure that we could all communicate.
Throughout the week, we worked hard, had fun and got to know one another. We had many visiting Park Inn staff members who would come by to bond with the young people and paint with them. Sven, the project manager from the Responsible Business department in Brussels, was with me all week making sure things went smoothly. Each day, we asked the kids to reflect on various themes, which they would then add to the mural. They explored their life challenges, painted portraits of supportive people in their lives, created scenes of nature and depicted healthy activities that bring them joy and keep them on a positive track. In one section, a girl flies as she holds on to balloons, which contain the goals and dreams of each participant. A flying squirrel, a favorite local animal that has amazing and surprising abilities, accompanies her, reflecting the nature of the youth themselves.
Carmen, one of our most enthusiastic teens, created many incredible paintings throughout the mural. I enjoyed speaking to her and to others who opened about the extremely challenging time they were currently facing, and their goals and dreams for their lives once they had graduated from the center. One young man, Rauno, created a fascinating self-portrait in which he was half negative and half positive. He told me that this reflected his feeling that he often felt conflicted by which direction to go in, having impulses inside himself that pushed him to exhibit self-destructive behavior as well as other, more healthy and positive impulses. Rauno was also very keen to try out spray paint, so together we created a stencil of his favorite animal, a spider. Upon seeing this, many others created their own stencils, and we had a blast spraying them onto the wall and creating custom T-shirts!
On the seventh and final day, we all felt great pride in what we had accomplished, but also sadness that our experience together had come to an end. After some speeches, we enjoyed the refreshments and chatted, took lots of selfies, and reflected on our time together. I told them that I too had a rough adolescence in which life didn’t always go in the direction that I had hoped, but that they had an opportunity to turn things around and make their dreams– which they had painted in the balloons– come true. To make this happen they would need to work hard and take advantage of the resources available to them, especially the incredible, supportive staff members at their center.
Thanks to all the incredible teen artists, Britt and the center staff, Olga, Sven, David, Toma and the whole Park Inn team for making this project such a success!!