New Art Program “Frees” Ex-Cons From Past And Sets Them On Road To Redemption

May 1, 2024

Victory Starts Now, a nonprofit that helps ex-cons gain their sense of self and become productive members of society, has given the green light to a recent grad to hold art classes for those currently in the program.

Victory Starts Now (VSN), a nonprofit that helps ex-cons and those deemed not ready to stand trial gain their sense of self and become productive members of society, has given the green light to a recent grad to hold art classes for those currently in the program. Former inmate and VSN graduate Luis Castaneda Zacarias says that though the jail system technically granted him his freedom it was only by expressing himself through his art that he truly became liberated so now the 31-year-old is guiding others to free themselves by tapping into their artistic nature.

“Art is more than a mere hobby, but an entry point in which those like I am are able to take the first steps in finding ourselves,” says Mr. Castaneda Zacarias. “In the short time I’ve been leading the class, I have seen dramatic transformations take place in which the insecure gain a sense of confidence, the timid become bold, the vulnerable find strength and the impatient become more tolerant.”

Mr. Castaneda Zacarias encourages his peers to always move forward by taking the next step — even if it’s a small one as each step represents growth and opportunity. As a result, he says they are experiencing a newfound camaraderie — a brotherhood of sorts — where they support and encourage each other as they continue their journey to reach their full potential.

Born in the Bay Area, Mr. Castaneda Zacarias and his mother moved to a small village in Mexico where he spent his early childhood. When they returned to the US, he didn’t speak English but learned that in order to adapt to his new surroundings he had to master the language. That experience taught him a valuable lesson — the amount of energy expended in an endeavor is like an investment whose dividends will ultimately pay off.

“I was living a decent life until a failed romance knocked me off kilter and soon I was committing petty crimes that eventually escalated to auto theft,” he recalls. “I was arrested and sent to jail. While there, I contemplated my situation and came to the realization that engaging in illicit behavior did not make me a better person — a stronger man — but was diminishing my potential.”

Upon release, he was enrolled in VSN, which helped him gain a new lease on life. VSN clients like Mr. Castaneda Zacarias receive a range of services including substance misuse counseling, individual therapy, life skills training and career development assistance. In addition, VSN sponsors a number of other programs like gardening, tai chi, exercise classes, art, school enrollment and more to help clients improve their sense of self-worth.

“It all started when I asked if I could paint a mural on a wall at the facility where I was living,” he says. “I felt such a wave of positivity and pride after it was done that I just kept at it. Other clients were watching what I was doing and they became inspired and that gave me an idea. I asked VSN Executive Director Viktoriya Stinson if I could start teaching art classes. She gave me the green light so today I work with about 20 others each Wednesday from 10 am - 11 am. I can’t tell you how rewarding it is.”

Victory Starts Now (VSN) was established by Ms. Stinson in 2015 after the nascent lawyer worked in the Los Angeles Public Defenders Office and witnessed, firsthand, the futility of the justice system that saw those committing crimes getting trapped in a revolving door, unable to break the cycle. Not content to idylly sit back, the Ukrainian native developed the program aiming to help clients develop a sense of self worth, self respect and dignity. Instead of releasing potential re-offenders back into society, VSN’s goal is reintegrating productive citizens back into society. VSN recently opened its 20th residential facility and the organization now assists up to 400 clients at any given time. For more information, visit


Web Analytics