The Monarch Effect

A tangerine colored butterfly flits across a cerulean sky. It soars above the San Diego skyline, dipping around apartment buildings and weaving through lamp posts until it begins its descent into Barrio Logan. There, it finds a place akin to a home it once had — a chrysalis. But this chrysalis is not a cocoon of sticky silk. Instead, it is a chalk white, one story building, covered with vibrant paintings and intricate geometric designs. This is The Chrysalis, the Monarch School’s Center for the Arts – a creative haven for children with unstable housing situations. 

The Monarch School is a one-of-a-kind K-12 public school serving around 300 unhoused San Diego children. Two years ago, the Monarch School began a new venture — an arts center designed to elevate its students’ self-expression to new heights. 

When the Monarch School got new CEO Afira Devires over the pandemic, she made it her mission to find out each department’s biggest wishes for the future.

“I was heading the arts department at the time so I asked the kids what they wanted,” Erika Malone, Director of Creative Youth Development at the Monarch School, said. “They were like, ‘we need a stage’ and we ended up with a whole new building.” 

Since there was no space to build a theater at the Monarch School, they found a vacant building two blocks away, previously a church and electronics shop. Over the course of the year, students, staff and community members renovated the building into a 6,000-square-foot center for the arts, complete with a 100-seat theater, art gallery and two studios for music and dance respectively. Every aspect of the Chrysalis, from its design to its name, was dreamt up by Monarch school students.

“We intentionally designed the Chrysalis with ownership in mind,” Malone said. “A lot of the students who attend our school struggle with the concept of home so we wanted them to feel like the Chrysalis was of their own making. We had the kids design the space as if they were designing their own room.”

One does not have to enter the Chrysalis to feel its ethos. The facade of the Chrysalis displays a vibrant set of butterfly wings emerging from a central heart. The wings embrace the school as if they were a colorful shield. This is “El Corazón y su Mariposa,” (“The Heart and its Butterfly”), a 163-foot-wide mural that blossomed from the hearts and minds of Monarch students and local interdisciplinary artist Araceli Carrera. The piece not only reflects the students’ love and hope for the Chrysalis but their involvement in its creation.

Once inside the main entrance, the Chrysalis opens into a multi-purpose performance space with a stage and seating. Here, the Monarch School students choreograph dance routines, music shows and plays, including a production of Peter Pan back in April. 

For many Monarch students, showcasing their imagination and hard work is an incredibly gratifying experience. It represents a chance to connect with their community, spreading the healing power of art.

“I love any kind of dance like hip hop and jazz,” Julie, a nine-year-old student at Monarch said. “Dance always makes me feel better. It lets me express myself and it calms me too.”

At its core, the Chrysalis is a place where students feel empowered to find their own voice. 

“When you are homeless, it can become such a large part of your identity,” Malone said. “The Chrysalis is a safe place for our kids to discover who they are outside of that. It elevates their sense of self and gives them purpose.”

Adrian, a senior at the Monarch school, found an outlet in theater and dance throughout the almost nine years he has been at the school.

“In middle school, I discovered my passion for the arts because that’s when I started to be more comfortable with dancing,” Adrian said. “I was finding myself too at that time…” 

Through performing art, Adrian was able to reinvent himself and discover who he wanted to be. 

A core tenant of Malone’s teaching style is positive reinforcement. She often asks her students, “What are your dreams for the Chrysalis?”

Julie dreams that the next play the Chrysalis puts on is Beauty and the Beast.

“I would want to be Beauty or the Beast,” she says.

“I want to be the Beast too,” her friend, Emilio, chimes in.

“We can have more than one Beast,” they agree. 

Adrian has plans for the upcoming fall play too.

“I want to focus on power, the power that nature has and I want to bring it inside onto the stage,” he said.

The performing arts are not the only way students can express themselves at the Chrysalis. The school promotes visual art like painting, drawing, sculpting and creating murals. 

Melina, a fourth grader at the Monarch School, created an art piece with Emilio, Julie and other members of the dance team called “Voices Repressed/Voices Elevated.” 

“Our painting represents how we feel,” Melina said. “I made it because I wanted to show that however people feel is okay. Sometimes I feel sad or mad, and that is not a bad thing.”

For Chrysalis students, the arts are a safe respite from an often unforgiving world. 

They are also a way for students at the Chrysalis to bond with their heritage and appreciate others as well. The Chrysalis has a unique vantage point from its location in Barrio Logan, a historically Mexican-American community rich with cultural expression. Barrio Logan is home to Chicano Park, which hosts the largest concentration of Chicano murals in the world. These murals depict the community’s past activism as well as notable figures like Frida Kahlo, Cesar Chavez and Emiliano Zapata. Like the murals, the Chrysalis pulls inspiration from its surroundings. 

For instance, on the exterior of the Chrysalis, “Corazón aquí es donde crezco y aprendo,” (“Heart this is where I learn and grow”) is written in large block letters, paying homage to the Spanish-speaking population of Barrio Logan. 

Local artist German Corrales, the “Butterfly Man,” teaches art at the Chrysalis. Corrales is native to Michoacán, a state in west-central Mexico famous for its annual migration of monarch butterflies in November. While teaching students how to paint and creating murals for the interior of the Chrysalis, Corrales also shares his heritage and its reflection in his art. 

“I teach them about the monarch butterflies of Michoacán and about native Gods,” Corrales said. “One God is Quetzalcoatl who is known for knowledge and power. That is exactly what I want to transfer to the kids.”

Instilling good values into the children is one of the Chrysalis’s prime missions. Art has the capacity to create connection and build community, something the Chrysalis uses to its advantage. 

The center teaches in a way that focuses on building healthy, constructive relationships, especially regarding conflict resolution.

“My teachers have taught me how to be a better person,” Emilio, a 9-year-old student at the Chrysalis, said. “A few days ago, a guy was being rude to one of my friends and I helped her and told him to stop. I learned that here.”

The students of Chrysalis are taught to have an open mind and heart, celebrating each other’s differences rather than trying to minimize them. 

“I have dyslexia and used to feel a little weird because of it,” Julie said. “Now I know that it is okay to learn differently, and the Monarch School has special classes for people like me so I don’t feel alone.”

The Chrysalis strives to instill empowerment and resourcefulness in the kids.

In fact, from Sept. 26 to Oct. 14, the Chrysalis hosted “True Colors,” an exhibit featuring original work by Monarch students, families and staff members. The art, as well as prints, was sold with proceeds going directly to the families of Monarch students. One of Corrales’s paintings of a hummingbird and butterfly raised $5,000 for a Monarch family. By learning to  sell art, Chrysalis students gained vital entrepreneurship skills in the process. Students sold over 70 art pieces in total, including two to the Cadieux family, a husband and wife who brought their two kids to see the exhibit.

“Being parents ourselves, it is really important for us to find ways to support children in our own community,” Nate Cadieux said. 

Events like these allow the children to create something that brings them joy  while also helping their families, revealing to them how much potential they have to be amazing, both in the art world and out of it. 

“We hope that the Chrysalis can play a role in breaking the cycle of homelessness,” Malone said. “We want to give our students a future.”

Malone hopes that self-sustaining exhibits like “True Colors” can show the children that a career in art is something attainable.

When the last blank space is painted over, final dance performed and the concluding note played, the Chrysalis is so much more than a school of art. It is a home — a place of comfort and always free of judgment. It is a space for every emotion from joy and sadness, to fear and fury. It is a blank canvas upon which creativity can roam free.  

“The kids need this; they need it like water,” Corrales said. “Just give them a brush and let them spread their wings and fly.”

The Chrysalis is like its namesake — a safe space to grow, adapt and change. A place where one can transform from a shy caterpillar into a spectacular butterfly. 

There are a variety of avenues through which TPHS students can get involved in the mission of the Chrysalis. The center is looking for creative and artistically-gifted volunteers to teach students one-on-one at the center. If you can play a musical instrument, dance, sing, act or are talented in any other art form, please contact Erika Malone at Or, to learn more about the Monarch School and the Chrysalis you can visit  

Read on Issuu.

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