This March, Makayla Chang would have turned 18 years old. It will also mark two years since the Nanaimo teen was last seen alive.
On March 17, the friends she left behind and the friends she never met will make sure she has a permanent presence in her neighbourhood when they unveil a memorial mural at Harewood Centennial Park.
One of the driving forces behind the mural project is Ajay MacLeod, coordinator of Generation Q, a drop-in support group for LGBTQ teens in Nanaimo that Chang attended. MacLeod said Chang was “super friendly” and well-known in Harewood and that her unsolved murder hit the community hard.
“A lot of the youths I spoke to just felt like they hadn’t had closure, like everyone had just kind of moved on, that there was really no outcome to know what happened and it just kind of felt like it was swept under the rug,” MacLeod said.
GenQ members brainstormed about what they could do to acknowledge Chang, and arrived at the idea of a mural that would commemorate her while also honouring and giving voice to other marginalized youths in the community who have struggled, died or gone missing.
MacLeod then approached Deborah Hollins, executive director of the Nanaimo Family Life Association, another organization Chang was involved in, who managed to secure funding from the city and brought in local mural artist Yvonne Vander Kooi to help facilitate the project.
Vander Kooi held workshops with young people from groups like GenQ, Support Among Youth and Tsawalk and invited them to participate in the project.
“I garnered some information and material from youths from these workshops and we’re kind of implementing those ideas and those images into the mural to create a narrative,” Vander Kooi explained. “A bit of a fantastical narrative, but one that I think has some very specific connections to Makayla as well.”
Zoe Hay learned about the project when Vander Kooi visited the SAY drop-in centre she attends. The 14-year-old said she’s used to painting on smaller canvases and has never worked on a mural before. Vander Kooi said Hay is one of the project’s most dedicated participants.
“I may not have known [Chang], I’ve never been friends with her, but I’ve heard friends who were friends with Makayla and I heard the stories that she’s had with them and I feel very proud of what I’m doing now,” Hay said.
The 5-by-12-foot painting features brightly coloured, overlapping imagery drawn from nature intertwined with a topographical layout of Harewood and references to neighbourhood landmarks, including the tree Chang used to climb at Fifth Street and Bruce Avenue.
Vander Kooi said bird symbolism is meant to evoke the legend of the phoenix and MacLeod noted that the inclusion of a deer alludes to a costume Chang once wore to a GenQ Halloween party.
“I think we often forget how powerful and imaginative and intelligent our youths are and so this is an opportunity for them to really showcase that about themselves,” Vander Kooi said. “And I think it’s a kind of actual, visual, physical reminder of that kind of untapped potential.”
MacLeod said the process was cathartic for the participants to meet, talk and share their feelings and visions, and added that the mural should act as a reminder that vulnerable youths need protection.
“I just hope it’s a physical monument that people can always see and remember, that youths can feel like their voices were heard and that they were able to create this living memorial,” MacLeod said. “But also … for us a community to be accountable and not forget her and see how we can help move forward with this and help some other youths so that this tragedy isn’t repeated.”
WHAT’S ON … Makayla Chang memorial mural unveiling at Harewood Centennial Park on March 17 from 1 to 2 p.m. RSVP by March 13 to firstname.lastname@example.org.