David Orona was grinning as he turned his silver Nissan Rogue — filled with donated art supplies — onto a parking lot at Manuel Jara Elementary School. 

A mural of people playing musical instruments on a turquoise background came into view. Students from Fort Worth ISD and Texas Christian University as well as nearby residents painted it.

“What do you think, buddy?” Orona asked, beaming with pride.

In 2019, David Orona was awarded a Proclamation from the Office of the Mayor. The award was given during the mural event he organized where students from Manuel Jara Elementary and TCU came together to work on a mural to beautify their school (Source: Fort Worth ISD Visual and Performing Arts)

Orona’s delight isn’t just because of what’s on the wall of the school where he teaches art — it’s the meaning behind it: When students from the Fort Worth ISD meet and mingle with volunteers enrolled at TCU and other colleges, they can explore possible opportunities for their future. TCU students benefit from discovering how they can help underserved neighborhoods. 

“It’s our own little community, you know? It’s our little extended family, and we’re all connected,” he said.

To date, the group has painted about 20 murals at schools, community centers and an animal shelter — all for free.

Orona is a part of a group of five Fort Worth ISD art teachers and three TCU staff members. They’ve been working together for more than a decade. The group has no official name and mostly operates through teachers’ connections. 

Painting the murals helps the college students connect with the community and build lasting relationships, said Rosangela Boyd, director of service learning and academic initiatives in leadership and student involvement at TCU. 

“It’s just human beings doing something together for the benefit of others,” Boyd said.

A view of the mural painted at Diamond Hill-Jarvis High School in Fort Worth. The art, which was painted by the school’s students, TCU students and the local community, reflects students’ athleticism, said David Orona, art teacher at Manuel Jara Elementary School. (Dang Le | Fort Worth Report)

Oftentimes, students from these areas don’t hear words of encouragement, said Yolanda Darden, an art teacher at Dolores Huerta Elementary and group member. Their parents are busy working, their siblings are studying, and these murals are an opportunity for them to build friendships with other students. 

“Sometimes the only kind words they have will be from art teachers who say, ‘I like what you did.’ It’s a big deal,” Darden said.

By talking to the community, the children will realize they can go to college, dream big and achieve anything, Orona said. 

“For our kids, it resonates stronger when it comes from someone other than their family because they’re like, ‘Whoa, this person is hearing me, and they’re trying to understand where I’m coming from,’” he said. 

The group paints one to two murals each year, depending on students’ availability and planning with the schools. Sometimes, conversations with school administrations can take months as they collaborate on what will be painted on the walls, Orona said. 

The members sometimes have to dip into their own pockets, Orona said. Other art teachers participate when they can. The work remains free for the recipients because of donations from nonprofits, charities, spouses, principals and the schools, he said. 

After Orona does the initial sketch, team members have their say. He spends a week before painting day to outline the sketch on the wall, and the team sets up stations the day before. Completing a mural takes about a day, sometimes with the help of as many as 500 volunteers. 

Murals offer artful interpretations of everything from school subjects and cultural acceptance to words of affirmation. 

As the artists get to work, people come and go as they please, Orona said. Sometimes, the streets are closed and, other times, law enforcement blocks a lane to protect painters. 

Always, the end result is something to be admired. Principals from other schools — and even city council members — have asked Orona about the murals and how he was able to pull them off. 

His answer? People really care about their community and its future, he said.

“The kids are what’s going to keep the community alive and moving forward,” Orona said. 

Dang Le is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at dang.le@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Dang Le is a reporting fellow. He can be reached at dang.le@fortworthreport.org. Le has a journalism degree from the University of Texas at Arlington. He was the editor-in-chief at The Shorthorn, UTA’s...