Arts program for the homeless hopes to gain from Oscar success of 'Innocente'

San Diego-based ARTS (A Reason to Survive) helped 15-year-old Inocente Izucar survive when she was homeless. An Oscar-winning film about her life, called 'Innocente,' helps show how the arts can benefit those in need.

Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters
Andrea Nix Fine (left) and Sean Fine, makers of the documentary short film 'Innocente,' arrive at an event featuring this year's Oscar-nominated documentaries at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, Calif., last week.

[Editor's note: This story was written before “Inocente” won the Oscar for best documentary short at the Academy Awards ceremony Feb.  24.]

This Sunday at the Academy Awards, Matt D’Arrigo will be rubbing shoulders with celebrities like Ben Affleck and walking the red carpet with the teenager his charity helped to become a star through “Inocente,” nominated for best documentary short film.

The movie, which followed Inocente Izucar when she was 15 and homeless, poignantly demonstrates how the vibrant paintings she makes at Mr. D’Arrigo’s San Diego nonprofit, ARTS (A Reason to Survive), helped her cope with extraordinary challenges.

If the film wins top honors Sunday, Mr. D’Arrigo hopes it will be easier for him to make the case to grant makers and wealthy donors about the power of the arts to help needy kids. Already the film has prompted a $10,000 donation from a couple in New York who were moved by the film, but Mr. D’Arrigo has bigger ambitions as he runs a campaign to raise nearly $5 million for his group.

Mr. D’Arrigo recommended Inocente’s story to Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine when the directors were searching for a subject to put a face on a striking statistic: One out of every 45 kids in America is homeless, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.

The 40-minute documentary shows Inocente starting out each day painting her face in an elaborate style that shows her artistic flair. But such light moments are few as the filmmakers capture the realities of homelessness. For a long period in her life, viewers learn that she never stayed in a place for longer than three months, even sleeping under a highway overpass while her mother stayed awake to make sure no one harmed Inocente and her brothers.

The film also discusses tough issues like child abuse and poverty.

Those kinds of troubles are common among the youngsters Mr. D’Arrigo’s program serves, he says, but his group is financially pinched to do all it can for children in need.

After the documentary appeared in film festivals and on MTV, a few donations trickled in from people who learned about his organization from Inocente’s story. But he says he worries that most viewers figure that the charity is financially strong because of the attention "Inocente" has received.

His challenge, he says, is to show potential donors “we’re not rolling in money. It’s a little misperception. A lot of exposure doesn’t necessarily translate into funding.”

Last fall, Mr. D’Arrigo started a three-year fundraising campaign to bring in $4.68 million.

So far, the drive has attracted $400,000. He says he is reaching out to foundations and wealthy donors to bolster the group’s programs and to be in a financial position to train and advise arts organizations across the country to copy its approach.

The buzz around the film started growing once it was nominated for an Oscar in mid-January, but Mr. D’Arrigo hopes the greatest potential for fundraising and attracting new supporters still lie ahead for the 12-year-old nonprofit.

“We’re giving it our best shot,” he says. “In the organization’s history, this is the best opportunity we have.”

Already, though, Inocente’s life has become a Cinderella story: She now has an apartment to return to after her stroll on the red carpet Sunday.

Dig deeper: Inocente is now available on iTunes.

This story originally appeared at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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