Jun 26, 2024

Transformative Journeys: The Impact of the Color Me Back Program on Participants' Lives

by: Chad Eric Smith

CMB Crew

In the heart of Philadelphia, an innovative program transforms lives through the power of art and community. Color Me Back (CMB): A Same Day Work and Pay Program is a groundbreaking initiative designed to offer individuals experiencing economic insecurity an opportunity to earn wages while engaging in participatory art-making. Managed by Mural Arts’ Porch Light community wellness program and supported by a network of partners, including the city of Philadelphia, the Scattergood Foundation, SEPTA, the Sheller Family Foundation, and the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS), CMB is creating ripples of positive change across the city. As we celebrate the fifth anniversary of this impactful program, we invite you to hear from a few of our program participants.

From Desperation to Hope: Personal Stories of Transformation 

Adrian Reyes. Photo: Steve Weinik.

Adrian Reyes’s journey with CMB began when someone handed him a flyer outside his house in 2021. “My life changed from there,” he recalls. Adrian’s story is one of profound transformation. After years of struggling with a troubled past, including a lengthy prison sentence, Adrian found a renewed sense of purpose through the program. “This is a big deal,” he says, emphasizing how his involvement has allowed him to pay his rent, bills, support his family and help him stay out of trouble. Now as the Kensington Storefront Studio Assistant, Adrian speaks of the program with gratitude and pride. “Life is not so bad. I’ve been doing great,” he shares, reflecting on the patience and responsibility he has gained.

Kyle Henry, another participant, echoes these sentiments. “CMB means evolution. It helped me evolve in a lot of ways. I am grateful,” he reflects. Describing his favorite project, the Emerald Street mural titled Garden of Rare and Resilient Plants by Mat Tomezsko, Kyle sees it as a pivotal challenge that significantly contributed to his personal development. “It molded me,” he admits, highlighting the personal growth he has experienced.

Nurturing Creativity and Building Skills 

CMB is not just about providing financial support; it’s about fostering creativity and building skills. Cory Kram, a teaching artist with the program, engages participants in various mixed media projects. “I do a lot of mixed media work with found materials,” she explains. Cory’s workshops explore collage making, painting, drawing, and sculpture, encouraging participants to unleash their creativity. “I try to come up with new ideas for the participants,” she says, underscoring the dynamic nature of the program.


Corey Cooper.

Corey Cooper, another self-taught artist, has reignited his passion for art-making through the program. “My favorite part of the job is interacting with people and learning new skills,” he says. Corey’s journey from working various jobs to becoming a staff member at CMB is a testament to the program’s opportunities for artistic and personal growth.

Creating a Supportive Community Through Art 

One of the most impactful aspects of CMB is its ability to cultivate a strong sense of community. “I’m drawn to the human connection that CMB brings. We are sharing our stories, meeting amazing people,” says Cory Kram. Many participants echoed this sentiment, finding solace and support in the program’s inclusive environment.


Nichole Cook. Photo: Steve Weinik.

Nichole Cook’s experience highlights this sense of community. “I enjoy that I get to work with my peers and that I can motivate people to change their lives,” she says. Nichole’s involvement in projects like the Emerald Street mural has had a profound impact on her recovery and personal development. “CMB program has made a huge impact on my life and helped with my recovery,” she shares. Nichole, who was previously unhoused when she found CMB, has since secured housing, maintained her recovery, made new friends, found her passion for painting and the desire to want something more for herself.

Resilience in the Face of Adversity 

Reinaldo Mercardo.

CMB provides a lifeline for many participants, offering stability and a path forward. Reinaldo Mercardo, the Suburban Station Studio Assistant, credits the program with helping him to create a better life. “CMB means everything to me. It’s keeping me sober and stable,” he says. Reinaldo’s journey is a testament to resilience, having triumphed over homelessness and substance use disorder with CMB’s support. “My goal is to help as many people as I can to be in a better position in their lives,” he says, inspired to give back and help others.


Katie Brown. Photo: Steve Weinik.

Katie Brown’s journey is another example of resilience. “CMB program saved my life and helped a lot of other people to change their lives,” she says. Transitioning from participant to workshop leader, Katie’s story vividly illustrates how the program fosters resilience and promotes personal growth. Her story, just like many others, are examples of how the CMB program can be a strong support system for anyone involved but for those who are willing to put in some work, it can be the first step towards long-term stability and wellness.

 Looking Forward: Aspirations and Hopes 

For many participants, CMB is not just a job; it’s a stepping stone to future aspirations. Corey Cooper envisions a future combining his love for art and education by creating an afterschool program for students and parents alike. “In the future, I’d love to work with kids and art – an afterschool program for students and their parents,” he says.

Inspired by his mentors, Reinaldo Mercardo hopes to create his own mural one day. “I can’t wait to work on a project from start to finish,” he shares. His story is a powerful reminder that pursuing one’s dreams and making a positive impact is never too late.


Emerald Street underpass mural in-process, July 8, 2022. Photo by Steve Weinik.


Artist Katie Brown. Photo: Steve Weinik.

Both Katie and Nichole hope to maintain their new found stability and continue following their own creative paths towards more art-making opportunities. For Katie, that means staying connected to organizations like HACE and McPherson Square Library where she already facilitates her own workshops. For Nichole, it means finding additional sites where she can leave her mark similar to how she painted her first mural at Raw Tools.

How Can You Support? 

Reset installation with Mat & Adrian. Photo: Steve Weinik.

The CMB program stands as a beacon of hope in Philadelphia, providing opportunities for personal transformation, skill development, community support, and resilience. CMB is changing lives through the power of art, one brushstroke at a time. The stories of Adrian, Kyle, Cory, Corey, Nichole, Reinaldo, and Katie are testaments to the profound impact of this innovative initiative.

We invite you to support the CMB program and similar initiatives that combine art and social services to positively impact the community.

By fostering creativity, building skills, and creating a supportive community, CMB is not just changing lives; it’s creating a brighter future for all.


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Last updated: Jun 27, 2024

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