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Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School gets a new lease on life—and a new building

Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School
Opened in 2014, Cristo Rey Atlanta has outgrown its Midtown location.

Photograph by Dustin Chambers

During the summer of 2015 Bill Garrett was losing sleep. Garrett, the president of Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School, a private school that serves only low-income students, knew the institution was quickly outgrowing its Midtown location.

Garrett threw a Hail Mary. He asked Jim Cumming, an Atlanta developer whom he recently met at a dinner party, to donate the seven-story former Oxford Industries building to the school. “‘That’s impossible,’” Cumming recalls saying about the prospect of giving away the building he purchased in 2013 for $2.5 million. Cumming, who owns the Flatiron, Tabernacle, and other properties, would consider leasing it—for $800,000 a year, cash Cristo Rey didn’t have.

But Cumming, who attended Jesuit schools while growing up in Canada, had lately been reflecting on how “people come into life with nothing and leave with nothing” and the importance of making a difference during the time in between. His mind turned to the school’s mission and his meeting with Garrett. “What really is impossible?” thought Cumming.

Later that day he told Garrett that Cristo Rey was the new owner of a prime piece of downtown property. After a year and half of fundraising and $20 million in renovations, the school’s new location within clear view of the Connector is now open and well positioned for generations of students to come. “This was an answer to our prayers,” Garrett says.

Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School

When classes resume this month, 525 students—more than triple the number enrolled when Cristo Rey opened in 2014—will walk into a new home that’s double the size of its former location. The building, once filled with employees of clothing maker Oxford Industries, has been reconfigured to house classrooms, labs, and faculty areas.

Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School
Bill Garrett, the president of Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School, says the new building will help the school save money while serving even more students.

Photograph by Dustin Chambers

A media center, cafeteria, and chapel will occupy the first two floors. An adjacent parking deck will become a “gymatorium” for practices, physical education, and pep rallies. “We’ve never had a home game,” says Garrett. “So we don’t have that rah-rah spirit of cheering for your own team.” In its previous location the school used a roped-off portion of a parking lot to practice soccer, basketball, and other athletics. “Having a gym is going to be huge.”

Having a home of its own also means lower costs and more cash to invest in the mission Cristo Rey shares with 31 sister schools across the country: providing students from low-income families—Garrett says the average Cristo Rey Atlanta family brings home around $30,000 a year—with a college preparatory education. With its own cafeteria, Cristo Rey will provide free and reduced breakfast and lunch to all students; school officials no longer have to spend $22,000 a month to buy food from a nearby restaurant, as they did in Midtown. Garrett says those newfound savings will help Cristo Rey train teachers, buy better equipment, and offer after-school programs.

What Garrett calls the “secret sauce” to Cristo Rey’s success and rising enrollment is a corporate work-study program where students spend five days a month at one of 95 Atlanta-area companies, including the Arby’s Restaurant Group, Deloitte, and Alston and Bird. Students are not just pouring coffee or making photocopies; Isanel, a junior, is learning how to help develop mobile apps at Ernst & Young. Corporate partners and philanthropies also pay for the bulk of students’ tuition. Parents pay a portion of the remainder based on their income.

School officials admit the pressure of balancing rigorous courses; a corporate work-study program; and, for some, difficult living situations can be stressful. Roughly 60 percent of students who begin in ninth grade at Cristo Rey schools across the country make it to graduation, says Diane Bush, the Atlanta school’s principal. “There are times when we’ve put too much pressure on our students,” says Garrett, adding that the school provides counselors and tutors to help students who are struggling. “Trying to figure out that balance is something we haven’t always gotten right, and we’re trying to be more conscious of that.”

For students who graduate, the college acceptance rate is 100 percent. While there hasn’t been a senior class yet at Cristo Rey Atlanta—the first group starts in July—the school has retained 82 percent of its original ninth grade class, one of the highest rates for the network of schools, Bush says.

“We give these kids a solid college prep program, but we tell them: ‘Hey, you’ve got to buy into this thing. You’ve got to work hard,’” Garrett says. “For me, this is a motherhood and apple pie and an American flag type of thing . . . we say, ‘You work hard, and you’re going to succeed.’”

This article originally appeared in our July 2017 issue.

How art therapy helps a Georgia veteran with PTSD

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Jason Smith
Jason Smith works in his home studio.

Photograph by Steven Karl Metzer

Everywhere Jason Smith turned, it seemed death surrounded him. As a medic in the smoldering battlegrounds of Iraq, he performed CPR on fatally wounded Marines. Back home he was involved in a car wreck that left him with a traumatic brain injury and killed a friend.

Before long he began hallucinating. There were daytime visions of dying men at his feet. In the grocery store, Smith saw the smiling ghosts of uniformed Marines waving. He was diagnosed in May 2005 with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The following year Smith, 33, was discharged after two tours in Iraq. Back in civilian life, he held and lost eight different jobs, largely due to symptoms relating to his PTSD. After a period of hardship and heavy drinking, Smith finally found comfort doing something he’d never done before: picking up a paintbrush.

These days the walls of the Gainesville, Georgia, home he shares with his wife, Pamela, are decorated with paintings and mixed-media artwork incorporating found items like feathers, vinyl records, and gnarly chunks of driftwood. Pop culture is a dominant theme—think ThunderCats cartoons, Iron Maiden album covers, and Duke’s Mayonnaise jars—but it’s not all lighthearted. One painting features a man dangling from a cliff; a group of soldiers grasp at him from below, trying to pull him down. “The chasm represents PTSD and memories and intrusive thoughts,” says the burley, bearded Smith, who swears by the healing power of the creative process.

He’s not alone, according to Sandy Springs native Melissa Walker, who facilitates art therapy at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, a military treatment facility in Bethesda, Maryland, dedicated to service members suffering from traumatic brain injuries and PTSD.

“It’s difficult for them to verbalize what they’ve been through, so traditional talk therapy doesn’t always work,” Walker says. “The art-making process accesses other parts of the mind.”

Marquetta Johnson, a longtime art therapy instructor in Atlanta, says creative pursuits help veterans with PTSD become more at ease and willing to share their experiences.

Whether in a group setting or at home, troubled veterans “take these invisible wounds . . . and create a visual voice,” Walker says. “They’re making the invisible visible.”

Jason Smith
Photograph by Steven Karl Metzer

Most of Smith’s invisible wounds stem from his time as a Navy medic serving with a Marine Corps unit in Iraq. On a mission in Haditha in 2004, a Humvee in his platoon hit a soft spot in the sand and crashed. The vehicle commander, a close friend, died in his arms as Smith attempted to revive him.

The wreck a year later left more tangible scars. A few days into a stateside military leave, Smith and a friend got into a car after they’d been drinking. His friend took the wheel.

“He lost control at around 120 miles per hour,” Smith says. “We went airborne and hit a telephone pole.”

He doesn’t remember much else because of the brain injury. The hallucinations started about three months later. At the time of his diagnosis, the Department of Veterans Affairs rated his level of disability at 80 percent, meaning he may never work again.

In early 2013 Smith moved from North Carolina to his wife’s hometown of Gainesville. Soon after, he began making pencil sketches, then turned to painting, sharing his work with the owner of an arts and crafts store down the road.

“She told me, ‘You ought to try making your own frames instead of buying picture frames,’ and that’s where I got the idea to use found objects,” Smith says.

Pamela sells his folk art online and has helped get his work featured in local galleries like the Quinlan Visual Arts Center. Smith says he’s come a long way since he first started painting. The best he can figure, art helps because it’s cathartic.

“[My art] gives me somewhere to put energy that I have no other way to get rid of,” he says.

Still, Smith remains on a range of medications. Walker says art is not a standalone treatment but is used alongside traditional care like drugs and counseling.

Even if Smith is never able to hold a job, he says he’s found a calling in life—one that helps him work through the invisible wounds of his past.

“Without my art, I would not be anywhere near where I am today,” he says.

This article originally appeared in our April 2016 issue under the headline “Picturing recovery.”

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