A place to create. Youth Wellness Centre mural allows Hamilton youth to be seen

Youth Wellness Centre clients Megan and Farhana pose in front of the Centre’s new mural  

Hamilton’s James St. S. just got a lot brighter. Among the blocks of old buildings, office towers and construction, the colourful front window of St. Joe’s Youth Wellness Centre (YWC) stands out. 

It wasn’t always this way. The building is nestled inconspicuously along the downtown street and many of the Centre’s clients had a hard time finding it on their first visit. Inside, the YWC team provides expert-led programs for young people aged 17 – 25 who need support with mental health and substance use. 

“We had received feedback that the space wasn’t welcoming when you first walk in,” says YWC Manager, and Clinical and Research Lead, Dr. Taylor Hatchard. “It’s grey, there wasn’t clear signage and that could be pretty anxiety provoking for clients on their first visit. I thought it would be fun if we updated the space with something that involved the youth – something colourful and inviting.”

Manager Dr. Taylor Hatchard in the Youth Wellness Centre space 

Enter Tessa Presta, a local artist known in the community for her lively window murals. With a love for teaching others new creative skills, she jumped at the opportunity to collaborate with the YWC and its young clients to mix learning and creativity to improve mental health. She was tasked with creating decals for the front window and painting a mural in the building’s entrance.   

“Art has consistently served as a remedy for managing my ADHD,” says Tessa. “I used to draw all sorts of loose geometric designs that filled a page from corner to corner. All these years later I’ve realized that that doodling and ‘mind-mapping’ was the beginning of what is now my signature style of compositional-based designs.” 

The creative process began with input from YWC clients. Peer Support Worker Jordanna Laman used the Centre’s weekly art drop-in groups to brainstorm meaningful imagery that Tessa could incorporate into the pieces. While some focused on community, connections and mental health, lighter images – like a pizza slice – were also symbolic of the YWC space as youth are often treated to pizza or other snacks in group sessions. 

Colourful new artwork welcomes clients into the Youth Wellness Centre from the James St. S entrance 

YWC client Farhana led the design of a collaborative portion of the mural, which clients were able to paint themselves. A client for five years, Farhana is an artist specializing in digital art. Her hope is to work in storyboarding for children’s television. 

“Art has always been a stable thing in my life,” says Farhana. “Especially during the pandemic, it was something I could lose myself in to escape and be able to express myself. You can be seen through art and express things that you can’t really use words for.” 

Megan, another client at the YWC played a big role in completing the mural. “I was thrilled to take part because I love being involved in the YWC and was excited to take part in designing it,” she says. “Incorporating art into my life has given me the opportunity to put my feelings and emotions into the physical world. I am able to use art to relay messages I feel that I can’t describe.” 

What started as an idea to brighten up the space eventually became a place where YWC clients came together to create. Over the course of a few weeks, Jordanna says she saw a transformation in many clients who were initially hesitant to contribute, but who eventually embraced making their mark on the mural.  

“Doing art in a community where people are creating alongside each other can help cultivate a sense of belonging,” says Jordanna. “That’s part of what the YWC does – it helps young people know that they’re not alone. That they have peers around them who are experiencing similar things and can connect in that way.” 

Art is part of many YWC programs. Jordanna currently hosts a weekly art drop-in where clients can create in ways that work best for them.  

“It’s so important to provide an outlet for people to express themselves,” says Jordanna. “There are a lot of challenges for young people who are working on recovery or making changes for their mental health. Many of them don’t know how to express themselves or talk about things. But there are lots of ways to express yourself and talking is only one of them.” 

This youth-led artwork was made possible by a generous donation from the Pasquale & Anita Paletta Family Fund at the Hamilton Community Foundation. 

The collaborative mural inside the entrance to the Youth Wellness Centre 

From left: YWC client Megan, YWC Youth Mentor Jordanna, and YWC client Farhana