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Elena Lai Etcheverry is the founder of Charity Wings, a nonprofit that provides a public spaces for people to do artwork. The San Marcos native has a mission of sharing her love of art and giving others an outlet for creativity. Photo by Hoa Quach
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San Marcos arts center opens door to healing, hope

SAN MARCOS — Elena Lai Etcheverry remembers a time when she taught an art class to servicemembers at Camp Pendleton. The Marines were all diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder, and the art class was meant to help them find a way to heal.

“One of the guys said the artwork he brought home to show his wife said more to her than he ever did in their whole relationship,” Etcheverry said. “She could feel the pain and hardships he went through because of his artwork. Art stimulates the subconscious and lets you say things you didn’t know was inside of you.”

Etcheverry is the founder of Charity Wings, a San Marcos-based nonprofit that provides a 3,000 square foot space for all people to do and enjoy art.

The San Marcos native began the organization more than 10 years ago with the goal of fundraising for other nonprofits through art. The first event Etcheverry hosted was a scrapbooking event that raised $2,500 for the American Heart Association Wear Red for Women Campaign with just 14 people in attendance.

After the first event, the charity quickly grew and raised more than $300,000 for more than 70 charities.

But, Etcheverry had a vision of doing more.

In 2013, she opened Charity Wings Art and Craft Center near California State University San Marcos with the goal of providing people hope and healing through artwork.

“I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel but after I did some research I couldn’t find what I wanted,” Etcheverry said. “We had all these connections and they all wanted to give us supplies so I thought, ‘Why don’t we open a space to let people use art as a healing tool?’ There are places to make art but there isn’t a single place like this. We give people an experience through creativity.”

Today, the space behind The Quad is open seven days a week with Etcheverry working full-time for a small salary and the help of two part-time employees. The arts center is also supported by 12 to 15 volunteers who teach art classes and 130 people who pay to use the space. All art supplies are also donated.

On any given day, one can find members of other nonprofits utilizing the space to use art as a form of expression.

“It’s about giving people access to art,” Etcheverry said. “Here you can find any type of art no matter the medium. We pretty much have everything here. We provide the space and supplies so any nonprofit can come and apply for classes. It’s free to charities. Every single person is welcomed here.”

When the nonprofit celebrates its 15th anniversary, Etcheverry said she hopes to have at least one additional arts center in another city to spread her mission of healing through creativity.

“The ultimate goal is to open art centers in every city,” Etcheverry said. “In order to get there we need to get the administrative side locked in and create a cookie-cutter format that can work anywhere. If we have a system in place, we can easily fill a space with supplies.”

For now, Etcheverry said she wants all people to know that anyone can benefit from artwork.

“Everyone is susceptible to art,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, what your gender is or what your sexual orientation is. Everyone can make art, be a part of art and benefit from art.”

For more information about Charity Wings, go to