cnnheroes montoya center entrance kids painting
CNN Hero Roger Montoya
03:41 - Source: CNN
Española, New Mexico CNN  — 

Growing up, Aaron Martinez watched both of his parents struggle with addictions. Ultimately, his older sister died from a heroin overdose and his father overdosed from prescription painkillers.

At times, it was hard for Martinez to imagine another future.

“People would tell me, ‘You’re going to be a drug addict, you’re going to be a tecato (heroin addict), you’re going to be worthless,’” said Martinez, now 22. “For the longest time, I believed them just because of what I was seeing in my life.”

In northern New Mexico’s Rio Arriba County, stories like these aren’t unusual. As a center of the opioid epidemic, it has one of the highest drug overdose death rates in the country – almost four times higher than the national average. Just last week, the county received a $2 million grant to combat the problem. Yet addiction is just one of the challenges in this region, where nearly 30% of the population lives below the poverty line.

But artist Roger Montoya is making sure young people like Martinez can find a different path through his nonprofit, Moving Arts Española. Since 2008, his community arts center has provided arts classes, free meals, tutoring and support to more than 5,000 children and youth.

It’s not the path Montoya originally envisioned. He’d been a professional dancer in New York, but by the late 1980s, he was HIV-positive and had lost his partner and many friends to AIDS. Returning to New Mexico, he felt like he was coming home to die.

“My soul was really aching with such loss and grief,” said Montoya, 58. “It seemed inevitable that I would be on that same track.”

Immersing himself in painting, a lifelong passion, helped restore his health.

“Coming home, with my family, my art, really set the tone for me to begin to heal,” he said. “Art is medicine.”

Now, Montoya brings the healing power of the arts to local children five days a week. Several hundred students each year take part in classes ranging from gymnastics and circus arts to fashion design and musical arts like singing, violin, ballet and hip hop. The group also celebrates local culture by teaching traditional Mexican dancing, known as folklorico, as well as Spanish flamenco dancing and guitar.

“We believe that if kids can taste a smorgasbord of opportunity, they’re surely going to find some creative pathway to connect,” Montoya said.

CNN Hero Roger Montoya

“Many of our kids come to us traumatized. … When I see a child’s face and spirit come to life, I don’t need any more evidence that it’s working. I just know we need more.”

Aaron Martinez is one of the group’s success stories. In grade school, he learned tumbling from Montoya, a former college gymnast. He vividly remembers the excitement he felt when Montoya helped him land a backflip for the first time.

“(It) just exploded this positive energy inside of me,” Martinez said. “Ever since … it’s made me feel like I could do so much more with my body and so much more with my heart.”

Martinez poured his energy into sports, which helped him stay away from drugs. Today, he teaches gymnastics at the center and plans to enter college this fall. With Montoya’s encouragement, he also shares his story at anti-opioid summits.

Seeing young people grow, as artists and as people, gives Montoya great satisfaction.

“You can feel when they have that sense of pride and confidence,” he said. “It’s a little fire in there and we just feed it every day a little more.”

CNN’s Kathleen Toner spoke with Montoya about his work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

CNN: What led you to create Moving Arts?

Roger Montoya: My partner Salvador and I were working in a program that I designed that brought arts into the public schools. During the school day we could see just a spark – the kids were like, “I love this. I want more!” We saw that an afterschool setting would give them more time to discover their passion. We also realized how valuable it would be during this critical period when school is out, mom and dad aren’t home. So, we said, “Let’s go to the superintendent. There’s got to be an empty classroom we use,” and that was how we started. It was a reaction to the need that we saw in the community.

CNN: How does your program work?

Montoya: With all the classes we offer, we do charge $6 per hour of class time, to help pay the teachers, but we keep it absolutely as low as possible. If you’d go to Santa Fe, you’d pay two-to-three times that for a similar class. However, since about 50-60% of our families live below the poverty line, we have scholarships available and all sorts of ways to not turn anyone away.

We also provide a lot of services for free. We provide free vegetarian meals to anyone who comes through the door. Often the entire family comes, so it’s an intergenerational banquet. There’s that sense of family – la cocina.

We also have a free tutoring program. Graduation rates here are alarmingly low. Our tutors are high-achieving high school students – cool young kids – who are trained through a partnership with a local college. So, our kids can come in, eat a healthy meal, do a gymnastics class and then get one hour of targeted help. It’s a whole child-centered model. And the tutors, who are paid, are learning life skills, writing curriculum, tracking data. We’re also investing in them.

CNN: You also have a strong peer mentorship program.

Montoya: As kids reach that pre-teen stage of development, there’s a real strong need for them to feel like they’re in control, so we’ve crafted a really wonderful container for youth development where kids help younger kids. They have an older peer to look up to, but they can also fashion a way to share what they know. It’s remarkably useful in helping these kids find their spine. And the arts, it’s the perfect environment.

CNN: What is your ultimate goal?

Montoya: It’s about building resilient human beings who can think creatively and critically. When a young person is traumatized, they shrivel and close, and their world becomes very insular and dark. If they find a creative outlet, it begins to open. That’s really in a nutshell what Moving Arts is about. It’s a safe vessel of love.

Want to get involved? Check out the Moving Arts Española website and see how to help.

To donate to Moving Arts Española via CrowdRise, click here