A boldly colored mural is being created one brush stroke at a time Sunday morning on the side of the United Way office in Medford.

A boldly colored mural is being created one brush stroke at a time Sunday morning on the side of the United Way office in Medford.

The collaborative effort takes the talents of about 25 kids, along with a few mentors, involved in the LIFE Art — an art therapy program designed to help at-risk Jackson County youth build a better future, said Phil Ortega, the program coordinator.

"All kids need a place to belong," said Ortega, an attendance, discipline and safety officer for Eagle Point School District by day.

Ortega said he realized the need for the program when he caught some teens tagging the back of his garage about four years ago.

"I like to paint cars as my therapy," Ortega said. "I asked them why they were tagging my shop. They said they were creating the graffiti out of respect for one of their brothers and cousins."

Ortega and his wife, Yolanda Ortega, recognized an opportunity for an outreach art program, he said. From college students to middle school kids, Ortega is determined to involved students at every level.

More than 50 kids are enrolled in the program, along with six paid mentors. Ortega's house is overflowing with several dozen artistic kids every weekend, he said.

"I need couches, I need supplies, I need space," said Ortega, who said he is looking for a commercial space for the LIFE Art program.

"I am hoping someone will come forward and do an in-kind donation for us," Ortega said.

LIFE Art is funded by a grant from the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Trust, which was created by former Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith following the loss of his son to suicide, he said.

"There is currently one suicide per week in Jackson County," Ortega said.

While the suicide rate reflects all ages, Ortega said the emphasis is on reaching out to young Latina girls.

"They have one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, second only to Native American girls," he said.

Kristyl Baehr, 16, hands off her brush to a fellow program member with instructions to add another coat of bright yellow to the area she has been painting on the United Way wall. The teen is back at Eagle Point High School after dropping out in her freshman year following the loss of a family member, she said.

"Phil found me and introduced me to the program," Baehr said. "The thing I like best about it is that you can express yourself in your own original way."

As the young artists prepared to head off for lunch at a pizza parlor, Ortega took another look at another piece created in United Way parking lot on Sunday. Rattle cans of spray paint are the medium of choice for a large banner that reads "We dream in color."

On a nearby table, Jose Rivera traces a contrasting outline along a smaller piece in several shades of blue, The portrait depicts one of the program's earliest members, he said.

Rivera, a 22-year-old student at Southern Oregon University, said he has been a mentor with LIFE Art for the past two years, he said.

"I just wanted to help people cope with different ways to express yourself," Rivera said.

All of the pieces provide kids a way to practice their skills and express their inner feelings, Ortega said.

"It helps kids deal with their anxieties," he said.

LIFE Art members have created six murals so far, including a large mural at Medford's YMCA and two smaller ones at Mountain View Elementary School in White City, Ortega said.

United Way's mural features outstretched hands reach toward a golden yellow sun bearing the words "Live United" filled with silhouettes workers and volunteers. Rivera designed it following conversations with Ortega and United Way of Jackson County Executive Director Dee Anne Everson.

The creative complexity of Rivera's design symbolizes many aspects of the work United Way does, she said.

"We approached them to do a mural that depicts our work," Everson said. "It is humbling and amazing. I think it's amazing."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or sspecht@mailtribune.com.