Reds partner with schools for 'Murals With a Mission'

March 27th, 2023

The Reds have announced the next high school selected to participate in "Murals With A Mission," powered by PNC Bank.

The initiative was launched by the organization in 2022 with the intention of creating a mural at high school campuses across Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky that elevates positive social messages relevant to each school’s student body.

For 2023, Loveland High School and members of its Hope Squad are working on their mural, which is scheduled to be dedicated on March 31 at a school-wide assembly attended by representatives from the Reds and PNC Bank.

"Murals With A Mission" began last fall with two high schools unveiling their art: Mason High School (Nov. 17) and Princeton High School (Nov. 22). Under the guidance and leadership of local artist Brent Billingsley and with the support of the Reds and PNC, students at each location worked together to develop a concept, design and finished product through which fellow students can feel represented.

At Mason High, Billingsley collaborated with the Students Involving & Befriending Students (SIBS) club, a diverse student-mentoring club consisting of upperclassmen. The club members are grouped with freshmen to take on culture-enhancing projects and activities such as combating social isolation, raising money for the community food pantry and involving students who are new or have special needs. SIBS is a very select club of about 150 students (in a school of approximately 3,600) who must submit an application and get teacher recommendations to be considered for entry.

“I had the privilege of going to a SIBS meeting, and it blew me away,” Reds senior vice president of business operations Karen Forgus said at the mural unveiling. “I knew right away we picked the right school to partner with. The purpose of the Reds doing this is that we need to give back to the community, and it was really important that we came to you. We picked SIBS to tell your story to your school and for your school. We wanted to lend our platform to give you a voice to strengthen who you are as a school and a student body.”

This specific project was spearheaded by the Core 4 -- a group of SIBS students that worked with Billingsley to design and execute the mural. The Core 4 included seniors Taylor Jackey and Julia Vigil and juniors Avery Blinn and Nithilaa Ranachandhran.

“When we were designing this mural for our school, all of us wanted to make sure everyone at the school felt represented,” Jackey said. “Mason is a big school, and it can be easy to get lost. But when you look at the student artwork around the building, there’s a chance for someone to see themselves here -- to feel included. We know the kids that go to Mason are the reason Mason is great, which is why we wanted the design to include some of our fellow SIBS.”

Located in the school’s massive cafeteria called The Commons, the completed work of art is a combination of nine individual paintings featuring several members of the SIBS club that together form a large “M,” emblematic of the school logo. By making the mural two-tone and simplistic, it’s easier for students to see elements of themselves somewhere in the painting, whether it be someone’s hair, face, expression or another feature.

For Billingsley, incorporating the students directly into the art was a no-brainer.

“It’s about legacy,” he said. “Any time when you’re engaging in a project like this and you have the ability to put the people in the art that are creating it, it just ups the involvement and the energy. Because you see yourself, you see the diversity. Some of those kids will be here another couple years and it’s empowering when you acknowledge people and show what hope looks like. Hope is empowering.”

Teachers Angie Johnson and Nicole Paxton stepped in this year to oversee the SIBS club. When the mural project came their way, they were excited but knew it would be no easy task to complete. From start to finish, the project came and went in less than a month -- but the impact is timeless.

What Johnson and Paxton saw out of their kids in terms of their painting skills, and more importantly, their ability to work together and come up with an idea they felt best represented Mason and their fellow classmates, really made them proud. And they know Billingsley helped bring that passion and collaboration to the forefront.

“As their leaders in school, we can tell them, ‘You’re doing an amazing job,’” Paxton said. “But I think someone like Brent coming in from the outside and working in a field they want to study, there is more validation hearing from him. When he tells them what an incredible job they’re doing, it’s meant a lot to them and really builds their confidence.”

“And he’s more than just an artist,” Johnson added. “He’s motivational and I think has really impacted a good number of these kids in a positive way.”

At Princeton, Billingsley worked alongside the HOPE Squad, a school-based, peer-to-peer, suicide-prevention program that started four years ago. The program emphasizes suicide prevention fundamentals, self-care, and anti-bullying with the purpose of improving access and availability to appropriate prevention services for at-risk youth. The HOPE Squad functions as a peer support team with the goal of providing kindness, encouragement and support for students in the school who may be struggling.

Nominated by their peers, HOPE Squad members are seen as individuals that other students would feel comfortable going to in difficult times for help or simply to listen. They meet with the group’s two advisors to learn curricula that will help them better navigate these situations and strengthen their leadership skills.

“When I think about hope, I think about these young people right here,” Billingsley said of the HOPE Squad students. “This team is special. I did not feel like I walked into a school; I felt like I walked into a house and they were family, and they invited me into their space. It was humbling, appreciated, and I am grateful for that.”

Much like at Mason, the Princeton group had multiple meetings with Billingsley over several weeks where they bounced ideas around. They landed on having a photo shoot that captured the students talking, laughing and being their authentic selves, which translated perfectly to the finished product. Billingsley drew everything out on the curved hallway wall on a Friday, and the next day, the students showed up and painted. As long as the process was to plan and prep, the execution was almost immediate.

“When I first got here to start painting the mural, I was initially kind of scared because I’m not an artist at all,” senior Kendall Benjamin said. “But everyone involved in the process was super encouraging and assured me, 'You don’t have to be a perfect artist, everyone is able to be creative, and it will turn out great,' which it did. I was sad when I had to leave. It was a really fun process, and I would love to do it again. I realized I would love to volunteer more and paint more. It’s really fun.”

Nine of the HOPE Squad members who helped paint the mural joined the unveiling after school on Nov. 22. They were joined by Billingsley, Princeton principal Ron Bollmer, additional school faculty and members of the Reds organization and PNC Bank.

“Both the Reds and PNC believe that there should be equal access for all dreams and all people,” said Warren Weber, PNC regional president for Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. “Diversity and inclusion is woven into our culture and who we are at PNC. These murals spotlight the work that HOPE Squad is committed to and that emphasizes suicide prevention fundamentals, self-care and anti-bullying.”

In the coming years, the Reds and PNC intend to reach even more schools throughout Reds Country.