By Erin Kane |
A few hundred paces from the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, on Woodland Avenue in West Philadelphia, the mural stretches across mirroring walls and reflects parallel worlds: wartime Baghdad and a picturesque Philadelphia homecoming. Elements of both environments are woven within the murals, juxtaposed with personal photographs, memories, and excerpts of poems penned by veterans. “There are veterans all around us coming home. They are in our communities, whether we know it or not,” said Lovella Calica, the Founder and Executive Director of Warrior Writers, a nonprofit that uses creative outlets to support veterans. Through partnerships and word-of-mouth, it reaches a couple hundred veterans a year, most of whom served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Warrior Writers works out of public and donated spaces in a number of cities, but mostly from Calica’s West Philadelphia living room. “This is the reality of my generation,” said Calica, a 31-year-old Michigan native who is passionate about empowering veterans. “It’s so important for veterans to not have to keep their stories silent,” she said.
Between two worlds
Nearly two years ago, Warrior Writers was approached by the Mural Arts Program, which received funding from the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health for a project focused on post-9/11 veterans. “There’s a little bit of disconnect between the veterans serving in these conflicts and the rest of us,” said Will Pace, who managed the project for Mural Arts. Together, the nonprofits organized a dozen low-key workshops, where veterans swapped stories, networked, and made art. The art making and community building led to the conceptualization and design of the mural. “I got to meet a lot of people in the veteran community. It was nice to be able to network and see friendly faces,” said Tom Ferrant, a third-generation serviceman who participated in the project. Ferrant spent his yearlong deployment in Iraq and is now pursuing a law degree at Drexel. “One of the photographs I took in Iraq was chosen to be in the mural,” he said. “The world doesn’t change when you get back. It’s not the ticker tape parade that people think it is. You just go back to your normal, everyday life.”
To make the transition home an easier one, organizations like Warrior Writers are reaching out to veterans, many of whom are millennials, where they hang out — on the Internet. “We find people at universities and on social media,” explained Calica. The organization uses Facebook, Twitter, and regular blog posts to engage veterans. It also publishes and sells anthologies filled with their poetry, prose, and artwork. Warrior Writers will host workshops next year at Walter Reed Medical Center, but more long-term plans are uncertain. “We need some serious funding,” acknowledged Calica. Still, the organization has big hopes that the new mural will give the public a window into veterans’ experiences. “We hope that people will understand a little more about being a veteran,” said Calica. “We need to support them as civilians now.”