Bridge-collapse survivor Lindsay Walz, '13, creates space for art and healing

Courageous heart

Bridge-collapse survivor Lindsay Walz, ’13, creates space for art and healing

Youth worker Lindsay Walz, ’13, opens the doors of her arts center every school day at 3 p.m. and welcomes a steady stream of young people eager to make art together. The small building that houses her organization, Courageous heARTS, is lined with shelves that overflow with paints, paper, and other supplies.

For Walz, it’s a longtime dream come true and a testament to how art provided healing in her own life.

Walz is a survivor of the I-35W bridge collapse that shook Minneapolis and the nation in 2007. She was driving home from work when her car plunged into the Mississippi River. Walz managed to escape her sinking vehicle and live, though she faced a long and arduous recovery from the physical and emotional trauma.

Walz was recovering at home with a broken back when she received a community education flyer in the mail. On a whim, she says, she enrolled in a class called Soul Painting. The experience became a major influence on her own recovery and quickly took shape as an essential part of her mission as a youth worker.

“The class became such an important part of me understanding myself again,” Walz says. “Knowing that trauma is something that takes away our words in a lot of ways, it became really important to me to create a space where anybody could have another way to express themselves.”

Walz has always been committed to youth work—she’s been in the field since 2001—but her own experience with trauma shifted her perspective on her life’s work in a lasting way. Even moments after the collapse, Walz says, she started to realize how the near-death experience would change the way she worked and interacted with others.

“I became very acutely aware of how my life now reflected better the lives of the young people I had served,” says Walz. “I understood trauma in their life in this whole different way.

“My trauma is concrete, bricks, steel—it’s impersonal, which isn’t the case for most people’s trauma—trauma is usually very personal. I feel this need to use my story to help illuminate the ways trauma impacts other people.”

Holding on to dreams

Long before Walz knew how trauma would come to impact her career, she knew she wanted to spend her life working with young people. During high school, she served on the board of directors for a nonprofit community center near her hometown. As a teenager, having her voice heard and respected in a room full of adults felt very powerful. She has wanted to make that experience possible for others ever since.

“I was impacted profoundly by the way I was able to show up differently in an adult world as a young person,” Walz says.

At the U, Walz studied family social science as well as youth studies, which was then available only as a minor. So when she applied for admission to a master’s degree in 2007, Walz had her eye on one thing in particular—the Youth Development Leadership program in the School of Social Work.

“I loved my youth studies experience and it was absolutely the most important part of my undergrad [program],” says Walz, “so to learn that it was a master’s was really exciting.”

Only weeks after the accident, Walz started graduate school, back injury and all. She was just beginning to understand her post-traumatic stress, and her progress was slow. But Walz held on to memories of her hometown community center and had nonprofit dreams of her own. By the time she finished her master’s degree in 2013, she had secured a space, formed a business plan, found sponsorship, and opened the doors of Courageous heARTS.

Safe and reliable space

Today, Courageous heARTS hosts after-school open-studio time every Monday through Thursday throughout the year as well as regular events and meetings of the organization’s youth advisory board, which makes decisions at all levels of the organization and plans collaborative art projects. Every other month, the center hosts Create Community gatherings with local artists who teach and share their work. But even without the special events, for many kids, Courageous heARTS is just a safe, reliable place to be themselves.

“We have a space, and it’s open, and it’s always here,” Walz says. “The most important thing is just to be consistent.”

Walz can’t explain how the pieces fell into place to make Courageous heARTS possible—a combination of hard work and, as she says, “it’s been a little bit magical.”

As the organization expands, Walz says she’s focusing more and more on community building and how it can benefit the young people she serves.

“What I’m growing to understand as we actually activate the mission and vision is that the community building is essential to the youth space—that youth and adults are together,” she says. “They are equal partners in the work.”

Measuring success

In 2014 Courageous heARTS earned its official nonprofit status. Walz worried about funding, but continuous donations of art supplies from friends, family, and community members kept her motivated.

“How do you measure success?” Walz says. “To me, the paintbrushes walking in on an almost weekly basis is successful—the fact that people are thinking about us and cleaning out their closets and bringing stuff to us. That’s success, but not in the world of money.”

By April of this year, however, Courageous heARTS had won grants from both Youthprise and Cities 97, already beating its grant total from the year before.

“We’re in a really great position to move forward on a higher trajectory in the year to come,” says Walz.

In times of struggle and success, Walz credits the young people of Courageous heARTS with keeping her inspired and dedicated. As a youth worker or educator, it can be hard in the moment to know if your work is truly impacting a young person, Walz says, but she often hears from kids about how much the organization means to them.

“Time and time again, young people will tell me or others in the space how important the space is to them—they just volunteer the information,” Walz says. “They have reflected on it. They recognize the impact that it’s had on their lives.”

Learn more about Lindsay Walz, Courageous heARTS, the Department of Family Social Science, and the School of Social Work.

Story by Ellen Fee | Photo by Susan Andre | July 2016