What began as a collection of student-illustrated posters last year has blossomed, week after week, into a huge, colorful mural in Riley Avenue Elementary School’s cafeteria.

Riley Avenue students have worked over the past year with artist Joyce Raimondo to plan, trace and paint the mural, which was unveiled at a presentation at the school this morning.

The mural is part of a larger “character education” project in the district that encourages positive behavior and anti-bullying.

“It shows respect and kindness, which are some of the words that represent our school,” said one fourth-grader, Lily, at the unveiling of the mural today. “If we all look at it each day, we will be reminded to be kind to each other.”

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The Riley Avenue mural embodies concepts from the school district’s “character ed” program. Photo: Katie Blasl

The mural, which is about 15 feet tall and stretches across part of the cafeteria’s western wall, features bright illustrations of children working together in various activities, such as gardening, sports, music and reading.

“When all the boys and girls come into the school in kindergarten, they might be scared or shy,” Raimondo told students today at the unveiling. “But now they’ll look at what you’ve created and say – ‘Wow, I’m not so scared. This is a fun place to be.’”

The project began about a year ago, when students who were then in third grade created posters with construction-paper cut-outs illustrating important character-building concepts, such as “respect,” “care,” “give” and “play fair.”

Raimondo then combined those concepts into a single illustration, which she traced onto the wall.

Second, third, and fourth grade Riley Avenue students have since been filling in the lines with brightly colored paint.

Artist Joyce Raimondo (left) and Riley Avenue art teacher Melissa Haupt (right) worked with students to create the mural's design. Photo: Katie Blasl
Artist Joyce Raimondo (left) and Riley Avenue art teacher Melissa Haupt (right) worked with students to create the mural’s design. Photo: Katie Blasl

“They loved it,” said Riley Avenue art teacher Melissa Haupt. “There was so much for everyone to do, and they were all working together to get it finished. It was a great experience for them.”

“My biggest joy in life is art and children,” said Raimondo, who has been working with Riverhead school district students for more than 10 years on similar projects. “To be able to combine these two things together, to create such a positive message, it’s so rewarding.”

The project’s anti-bullying theme was reinforced through the teamwork needed to complete the mural, she added. “Rather than focusing on the negative behavior of bullying, we’re doing the opposite through the artistic processed,” she said. “We’re helping each other as a team, all toward a common goal.”

Art also bolsters creative and critical thinking skills in ways that people often underestimate, Raimondo said.

“It enhances social skills – it teaches children how to work together,” she said. “It enhances self-esteem by showing children how to express themselves in a positive way and finding a voice and their own individuality. It inspires intellectual skills like problem-solving and creativity. It really touches upon all the aspects of being a human being.”

Raimondo is an artist, children’s book author and educator who works with schools across Long Island. More of her work is available on her website.

Riley Avenue fourth graders explained to the audience what they learned from working on the mural. Photo: Katie Blasl
Riley Avenue fourth graders explained to the audience what they learned from working on the mural. Photo: Katie Blasl

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Katie, winner of the 2016 James Murphy Cub Reporter of the Year award from the L.I. Press Club, is a co-publisher of RiverheadLOCAL. A Riverhead native, she is a 2014 graduate of Stony Brook University. Email Katie