ARTS is back!

February 20, 2018
Hi, my name is James Halliday, and in January I began as Executive Director of A Reason To Survive (ARTS). Our mission is to empower young people to reach their full potential through the trans-formative and therapeutic power of the arts. As a nonprofit based in National City, ARTS is committed to realizing that mission, while also serving the community to become a safe, inclusive, and healthy place where the next generation can flourish. It’s a bold vision, and we’ve got a great deal of work ahead of us. So here’s to fresh beginnings!
I’m excited to be here, and I’ll be the first one to tell you that — one month in — I haven’t figured it all out yet. What I do know is that the greatest learning on the job I’ve had thus far has come from spending time with colleagues and the young people who know ARTS best. A few weeks ago we went on field trip to International Friendship Park at the border for a unique bi national concert. The San Diego Symphony performed John Luther Adams’ piece Inuksuit. Besides the fascinating music and arrangement, it was a beautiful day at the beach:
I also know that while I’m picking up the story of ARTS mid-page, the organization is ready to begin a new chapter. And it will be with and through these colleagues, young people, and with the support of partners, volunteers, and donors that ARTS will not only survive, but thrive again.
Today, ARTS is in a period of transition. After years of leadership under its founding director, Matt D’Arrigo, we are in a rebuilding process. We must breathe new life into our fantastic 20,000 sq ft space, our programs, our partnerships, and re-connect with the families and youth in the community. With a staff of 3, our current capacity is far smaller than it’s been in the past, but we’re contracting teaching artists and resuming youth programming at the end of this month.
I’m very happy with the steps we’re taking. To keep up this momentum, I’m asking for your support:
To build our resource base – beyond what donors like you contribute! – we’re expanding our Board of Directors and deepening our relationships with the business community of National City and across the county. To improve our overall impact, we’re working with student interns and cultivating new partnerships in order to bolster ARTS programming and the quality of student services we offer. It takes a village, as they say.
Turning to the big vision for ARTS, here are some priority areas that I’m excited about:
  • Creating a youth council that empowers our young people to raise their voices, recognize their agency, cultivate their identities, while fostering a sense of ownership in their community
  • Establishing the ARTS Center as a regional hub for creative youth development, where multiple organizations and individuals work and collaborate under one roof to the benefit of the people and communities we serve
  • Collaborating with community and business partners, along with our public sector champions, to build a local talent pipeline into opportunities and careers in theregional creative economy

One of my favorite programs is Young Artists in Harmony, in collaboration with the Art of Elán. Here’s a photo of two of our students, Marco and Vanja, along with Deejay and Diego, two former ARTS students who have become teaching artists, following their smashingly successful performance at the San Diego Art Institute on January 30th

We’ve got more awesome events coming soon. Sneak peak: On March 30th, we’re excited to be hosting the La Jolla Playhouse’s POP Tour production of Home of the Brave, a performance that tells the stories of youth from military families about growing up (and moving all over the world). There’s a significant active military and veterans community in National City and across the South County, so as part of our community engagement we’ll be hosting a special reception before the performance.

I could go on and on about the great things happening again at ARTS. For now, I’ll leave you with this: The work we’re doing is vital. Everyday, we see the power of the creativity to lift lives and build self-confidence in young people. In the future, I look forward to sharing more of these stories. To catlayze our work, please consider donating right now:

I hope this finds you well, and l look forward to welcoming you at ARTS very soon.
With gratitude,

UT San Diego: School Honors Young Girl’s Legacy

Mural features Braille, sign-language tribute to beloved student

Rob Tobin, Artist-in-Residence at A Reason To Survive (ARTS), right, with Sebastian Gonzalez, left, and Dylan Ginther look at a mural they helped make in honor of their friend and fellow student Yusra Nasir who passed away last year. The multi-dimensional mural lines a wall at Lafayette Elementary School. — K.C. Alfred

Rob Tobin, Artist-in-Residence at A Reason To Survive (ARTS), right, with Sebastian Gonzalez, left, and Dylan Ginther look at a mural they helped make in honor of their friend and fellow student Yusra Nasir who passed away last year. The multi-dimensional mural lines a wall at Lafayette Elementary School. — K.C. Alfred

— Described by her teachers and peers as highly motivated with a strong personality, fifth-grader Yusra Nasir loved to laugh and spend time with her friends. She loved colors, pink playdough and jewelry, especially bracelets.

All that — her vibrant character and her favorite things — were the inspiration for a colorful mural at Clairemont’s Lafayette Elementary School, where Yusra was a student.

Yusra passed away last summer from health complications, but her memory at the school lives on through the 60-foot mural, called “Yusra’s Legacy.” The mural, which covers the wall of a building facing the schoolyard, was formally unveiled during the sixth-grade promotion ceremony on June 13.

“The best part was the unveiling,” said ninth-grader Dylan Ginther, a former schoolmate of Yusra’s, “because everyone was so surprised and they were happy to see it.”

The artwork, paid for by Proposition Z funds and some ASB funds, came together thanks to a partnership between the school and the nonprofit A Reason To Survive (ARTS), founded in 2001 to help kids facing adversity through art and music programs.

Rob Tobin, artist in residence with ARTS, said the project, an image of hands signing “I Love You,” took a couple of months to complete. The first phase involved handmade ceramic and glass tiles that spell out, in Braille, an inspirational quote from Helen Keller: “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched — they must be felt with the heart.”

The second phase — painting and putting the materials on the wall — took two days.

About 75 students, teachers, parents and ARTS volunteers worked on the mural to honor Yusra, who was deaf and blind.

yusra“She was very girlie,” said Kim Chaney, the aide who worked with Yusra since first grade. “She just had personality and sparkle and shine … she really was an inspiration.”

Getting the mural completed took “a lot of teamwork,” Tobin said. “Every one of those 75 people who were involved really played a part — we couldn’t have done it without them.”

Dylan helped paint, put the plaster and cement on the wall and wash the grout off the tiles. He admitted the project was not easy, but it was worth it.

“She was a good friend of mine — I’d call her my best friend,” Dylan said. “We would always play during recess time together.”

Yusra lost her eyesight around first grade. She communicated through Braille and tactile signing, in which the listener places their hands on the signer and feels the movement of each word. Despite losing her sight, Yusra remained in the same classes as her peers.

“Academically, she kept up,” said Chaney, who recalled Yusra’s love of school and reading. “She wasn’t what I expected at all because she was so independent.”

The sign language on the mural is in the context of friendship, denoting respect and compassion.

“I just had this vision of a sea of ‘I Love You’ hands on this wall,” said Principal Jerilee Fischer-Garza. “And this is Rob’s interpretation of this concept. Then all the volunteers added their own special touch, so it is really like a collective vision that represents Yusra.”

The tiles on the wall are all unique, crafted by many students’ hands.

“It helped me remember Yusra,” said Sebastian Gonzalez, who was friends with Yusra since preschool. “I did it in her honor and memory. And I really miss her — she was my friend.”

Sebastian proudly pointed out which tiles he made — an eclectic mix of green, yellow and gray rectangular and circular tiles with unique etchings.

“I knew Yusra would like the designs, so I just came up with them.”

Mary Kay Cook, Yusra’s fifth-grade teacher, recalled Yusra’s impressive ability to memorize, allowing her to draw pictures from when she had vision.

“She always knew you just by your sense,” Cook said. “We would go to sign to her and she would know who you were without you identifying yourself.”

Yusra learned how to tie her shoes with Cook after someone didn’t believe she could.

“She had a lot of determination and grit,” said Fischer-Garza.

Though Sebastian no longer attends Lafayette — he’s now going into the seventh grade — he believes the mural will continue to serve its purpose.

“The kids in the future growing up will be able to see it,” he said. “I won’t be able to see it anymore, but they will … and as they grow up, they’ll learn more about it.”

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Success Magazine: Top Of Mind: Tips and Tactics for Life and Work

Life and work are all about finding and doing what you love, and being passionate about it. This will change as you go through life. You have to shed skins and re-create yourself many times, which is easier said than done and requires overcoming fears, taking risks and making tough decisions. Two books that helped me in this journey are Joseph Campbell’s Pathways to Bliss and Chip and Dan Heath’s Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. (Disclosure: ARTS is a case study in Decisive.)

—Matt D’Arrigo, CEO of ARTS | A Reason to Survive

See more here.



National Endowment For The Arts: Art Saved My Life: Talking With Inocente

Inocente’s gripping journey from homeless teenager to full-fledged artist was beautifully captured in this film which won the 2013 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. But the story doesn’t end there. After years of drifting from shelter to shelter, Inocente, now 19, not only has a permanent place to call home, she has serious interest in her artwork, and most impressively, a vocation to advocate for other disenfranchised teens and general access to arts education. Art not only saved her life; art transformed it.

Special thanks to Matt D’Arrigo and Rob Tobin of A Reason to Survive [A.R.T.S] for their generosity and their help. A.R.T.S is the nonprofit that was instrumental in helping Inocente get back on her feet.

Inocente:  I think art makes me a stronger and better person because it’s a way that I express my feelings. I’m not a big talker on how I feel. But if someone gives me a canvas, I can definitely describe all my feelings to you on a canvas. So it’s made me stronger in the sense that I’ve become more confident. And art just kind of kept me away from all the bad things I could have been doing. I felt like it saved my life.

Inocente:  Hi. My name’s Inocente and I’m from San Diego, California.

Adam Kampe: So your earliest experience with art—do you remember that?

Inocente: I always did like sketches and little drawings. I went to the ARTS center, A Reason To Survive. And that’s where I started painting. So when I was about 14, I really started painting with actual paint. And for me that was like magic. That was when I realized that I was doing artwork.

Adam Kampe: Can you talk about how you discovered ARTS and what exactly ARTS is?

Inocente: Well, I was going to a school that was for homeless kids. They had after school programs. And, of course, I always signed up for the arts because…I don’t know, I guess I just was more attracted to art, rather than, say, going to play soccer at the field. So I would always sign up for the art class. And A Reason To Survive has a van program, called Van Go. They pick us up and take us to their center. And we would do art work there. And that’s how I discovered them. And we would take classes, probably, once a week. And I just kind of fell in love with them. And I felt accepted there. So I just kind of started taking the bus there on my own and finding my way there and back. So I ended up being there almost every day.

Adam Kampe: In looking at ARTS website, it mentions that the organization believes in the power of the arts and creativity to literally transform lives, especially those of kids or young adults. It’s pretty safe to say that ARTS and the arts has literally transformed your life. Can you talk about that transformation and that change?

Inocente: Yeah. It helped me find who I was. I mean, I feel, too, that after all I went through, after all the things that I went through, with being homeless for over nine years, to being on the streets, to the relationship with my mom. Being able to use art as my escape, rather than, say, drugs or join a gang or do any of that, was just amazing for me that I went through the right path. Everyone has a different thing they go to, like music or sculpting or just any type of art.

Adam Kampe: As you’ve traveled around and discussed the movie, have you had a chance to engage with other kids?

Inocente: I went to Atlanta. And we did a screening for Tri Cities High School. And a lot of high school students came to watch the documentary. And afterwards, I did a Q and A. And they were just so sweet. Three guys from the school collaborated on a painting that they did for me. And I just felt so honored to be there and I exchanged emails and phone numbers with a lot of them. Because they wanted to talk to me about how much they could relate even though they were at in Atlanta and I came from San Diego, how much we related and how me being there in the documentary gave them hope. That made me realize how much change this was going to make for not just me, for everybody.

Adam Kampe: Was there a moment, either during the filming of the documentary or after it, where you realized, “Wow. You know, this is something I really want to get involved in? This whole issue in general of arts education or being an advocate for other people in your situation?”

Inocente: When the filmmakers approached me about doing the documentary, they’re really, really amazing people. And they were genuine. But, you know, I said yes because I knew this was going to help people. I didn’t do it because I thought it was going to make me famous or anything. I didn’t even know how far this documentary would go but I said yes to making a documentary because I felt like I wasn’t only telling my story but I was telling the story of many other people. And a lot of people compare to this story, maybe not on the same level as that they were homeless, but in a sense of being hurt and not giving up hope and continuing with their life. So the fact that this documentary has gotten a lot more exposure just, it’s really fulfilling for me because I know it’s going to help a lot of people. And I know it’s just going to give more exposure to the reality out there.

Adam Kampe: One of the things that really struck me is how you woke each morning, and you talk about this, and decided that the first thing you were gonna do is paint your face. And there is something so unique and courageous about using your own body as, for lack of a better word, a canvas. Can you talk about that and how that sort of came to be?

Inocente: I was just so in love with art that I wanted to start my morning with art. And I found a way and that way was by painting on my face. So every morning, I would wake up just a little bit earlier, so I had enough time to paint my face all colorful before I went to school. And I got a lot of judgment for that and a lot of people were very judgmental. But I realize that it wasn’t about them. And it was about me and it was about how I liked how I felt. And it was just something fun for me to do. And even though people were judgmental, I still did it anyways.

Adam Kampe: How did you come across what you would maybe describe as your style? Because there’s definitely an almost electric, feel to the paintings at least what I’ve seen in the film and online.

Inocente: I think despite my past, I’ve managed to paint beautiful things because even though I went through a lot and there’s still some things I’m working on, I feel like if I paint sad things and dark stuff that it would just make me even sadder. So even if I’m sad, I try to paint something beautiful and bright because it just kind of changes your mood. And the colors are more vibrant so it gives you a different state of mind, I feel like. Also, my art is very messy. And I like that because growing up, I felt like my father would want perfection. So art has given me the freedom to be messy and if I accidently drop paint on the canvas, I just tell people that’s my artwork.

Adam Kampe: What do you dream about for other children, teenagers, that are in your position? Or another way to put that is what do you dream about for the future of arts education for the youth of the country?

Inocente: Well, my dream for the arts education is that, you know that, it never disappears. Because I feel like, you know, we don’t have that a lot in school. I feel like if I went to school where we did a lot of artwork, I feel like I would have done so much better. And maybe not necessarily like painting, but art is music or sculpting or art can be anything. We just cannot live without art. And I don’t know how anyone can even think about getting rid of the arts education. Because it’s so important, not just to people who love art, but people who see the art. So I feel like it’s, it’s like a chain reaction. Kids will act out if they’re unhappy and if there’s no art, I’m sure there’ll be a few unhappy kids out there. I’d be one of them.


Excerpt of “Night Owl” by Broke for Free from their Directionless EP.

Excerpt of “Love Story” by Fhernando from the album, Last Days of Disco. Both pieces used courtesy of Creative Commons and found on the WFMU’s Free Music Archive at

See more here.

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National Conflict Resolution Center: 2014 Peacemaker Awards

Local Peacemaker Honoree

ARTS, an organization based in National City, is dedicated to helping youth cope with grief,
anger and hopelessness through arts-based programming. Depicted in a 2013 Academy
Award winning documentary, ARTS provides a safe haven that keeps kids away from gangs,
drugs and other violent activities, giving them A Reason To Survive.

About The Awards

NCRC believes that those who have the courage and perseverance to collaborate with others
and make notable progress toward a more civil society deserve recognition. Since the first
Peacemaker Awards in 1989, NCRC has celebrated the accomplishments of many
individuals and organizations for their ability to recognize a need for change, then craft a
positive solution to the issue. NCRC has given awards to deserving recipients ranging from
well known elected officials and public figures to reformed gang members and tattoo artists.

Knowing that peacemaking happens in a variety of ways, NCRC celebrates both large and
small acts of successful conflict management. By publicly acknowledging and celebrating
these outstanding individuals and organizations, NCRC hopes the Peacemaker Awards will
broadcast far and wide that there is hope for change and we must always strive to find
positive solutions to conflict and violence.

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The Today Show: Nonprofit Helps Kids Heal Through Art

Matt D’Arrigo, founder of the California nonprofit organization “ARTS,” was inspired by his own experience of dealing with pain through painting to create a safe haven where nearly 2500 kids a year who are struggling through tough times can express themselves through art.

ARTS Featured on The Today Show!

The TODAY SHOW filmed at ARTS and will be featured on Tuesday, December 31!

Click here to watch this very special segment!

To inquire about original or commissioned artwork:

Kyle Bowen:
Hannah Bowen:
Tashia Williams:

To book a musical performance please contact:

Deejay Rich & Diego Rodriguez:


TedX San Diego: Matt D’ Arrigo

Matt D’Arrigo is CEO and founder of A Reason to Survive (ARTS), a San Diego organization providing arts programs and career preparation for youth facing adversity. His belief in the power of the arts stems from the year he spent caring for his mother and sister as they both battled cancer, during which he relied on his art and love of music to help him face an extraordinary life challenge. A student in the ARTS Empower program was the subject of Inocente, winning the 2012 Oscar© for best short documentary.

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UT San Diego: From Art Therapy To The Oscars

Matt D’Arrigo Of A Reason To Survive Discusses Working With Inocente And Other Underprivileged Local Teens


darrigo_r620x349Earlier this year, people all over the world found out about Matt D’Arrigo’s arts organization, A Reason to Survive (ARTS).

“Inocente,” a film based on a local homeless ARTS participant, won an Academy Award for best documentary short.

But D’Arrigo, 41, didn’t start the organization for the glitz and glamour. He wanted to give kids facing adversity a place to feel safe and he’s been doing that since 2001.

ARTS recently moved into a new building in National City, where the program’s been based for just over a year.

D’Arrigo, who came to San Diego from Boston in 1997, explains why he feels art can save lives.

Q: What is A Reason to Survive?

A: ARTS is dedicated to changing the life trajectory of youth facing adversity through the arts and creativity. We offer therapeutic arts programs, formal arts education, and college/career preparation in the arts and creative industries. We’re a one-stop shop bringing youth from crisis to college or career using the arts and creativity. Our mission is to provide, support, and advocate for arts programs that heal, inspire, and empower youth facing adversity.

Q: Why did you decide to found it?

A: I came up with the whole idea when I was 19 years old facing my own difficulties. I was studying art in college when my mom and sister were both diagnosed with cancer. I took a year off and stayed home, but would escape to my bedroom everyday to paint and listen to music. It was extremely therapeutic and transformational for me and helped me through that very difficult time. I knew if it worked for me, it would work for other kids facing their own challenges.

Q: ARTS recently got a lot of attention thanks to the Oscar-winning short documentary “Inocente.” How does her story reflect the organization?

A: Inocente’s story is the story of ARTS and exemplifies why we exist. She is the exact reason why I started the organization. Inocente was homeless, abused and bullied, but a true artist was inside waiting to get out. She relied on art as a coping mechanism and a vehicle to turn her life around. She’s one of our many success stories.


Q: Has the success of the documentary helped ARTS?

A: It has helped in a number of areas. First, it’s validated our program in a very real way. Second, it has given us national recognition, awareness and a platform to advocate about the importance of the arts and arts education for youth. We are taking a leadership role in creating a movement around the importance of arts education and youth arts programming. It has also opened doors and allowed us to build relationships that will help strengthen the organization both financially and programmatically so we can have an even greater impact.

Q: Tell us about the new space in National City and what you hope to do there.

A: It’s incredible — 20,000 square feet of creative space for kids! We have two buildings, a main building that houses our resource library, our administrative space and our visual arts, music, industrial arts and media arts departments. The second building houses our dance and theater departments. It’s like a mini campus! Our goal is to continue to deepen and grow our programs to serve more kids, especially in National City and South Bay.

Q: Why is having a work space important to the kids you work with?

A: Having a third space — not school or home — is critical to our model. One of our students recently said it very well: “School and home is where you have to keep secrets, ARTS is where you can let them all out.” We believe having a safe, nurturing, inspirational environment for kids to escape their daily struggles can be transformational in itself. Then when you fill that space with positive adult mentors and role models, that’s when magic begins to happen.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: I walked from Oregon to San Diego when I moved here. It took me two months, I only spent $300, and I lost 30 pounds. I think I need to take a walk again and shed some LBs.

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: My work weeks are pretty intense and busy, so my ideal weekend is having no commitments or obligations — just freedom to be spontaneous or not. I enjoy being outside, spending time with my wife and kids — going to my kids sporting events. Cookout with friends and neighbors. Maybe hit the beach or local parks … or just lounge around and read.

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