When Cocha restaurant owners Enrique Piñerua and Saskia Spanhoff decided they wanted to spruce up their block of North 6th Street, they reached out to the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge and the Downtown Development District for ideas.

Their request would ultimately bring together a diverse group of people working toward two goals: beautifying downtown Baton Rouge and giving ex-offenders in a re-entry program a chance to do something good for their community.

On Saturday, participants in the Rehabilitating Individuals through Strategic Encounters, or RISE, program joined a small group of volunteers to tackle the first project on the restaurant owners’ list. They put a fresh coat of white paint on a wall, creating a canvas for a colorful mural that will be completed later this month.

“Bringing arts into rehabilitation can really help people to find their place and ... help them go back into civil life,” said Melissa Arnold, chief financial and human resources officer for the arts council.

“Art is an equalizer for a lot of people,” she added. “It gives people a way to connect and to find commonality.”

She said Renee Chatelain, the council's president and CEO, works with RISE and wanted to make it a part of Saturday's event.

U.S. District Court Judge Shelly Dick and Magistrate Judge Erin Wilder-Doomes, both of the Middle District of Louisiana, oversee RISE. Launched in January 2017, the voluntary program aims to set nonviolent offenders on a positive path while on supervised release from federal prison.

The yearlong RISE program, which serves about six people at a time, involves regular meetings with a judge and cognitive behavioral therapy sessions, among other requirements. Those selected to participate are deemed to be at high risk of landing back in prison.

People who finish the program can get time taken off their supervised probation sentences.

“We’ve looked for ways to ensure that our participants have an opportunity to be involved in something in the community,” Wilder-Doomes said. “After you’ve been incarcerated and you’re coming back into your community, it gets really important for them to understand they’re a part of this community.”

Michael Young, a RISE participant, smiled as he talked about the program, saying he’s confident it is leading him toward a better life.

“If we need help, we have each other to lean on,” he said. And the therapy component of RISE “helps us to realize the way we were thinking wrong.”

He said he was proud to be part of the beautification work on Saturday.

“This is where I grew up at. This is where I’m from — Baton Rouge,” Young said, adding that the project is “helping our community to be better.”

The mural, which will depict a Louisiana outdoor scene with trees and wildlife, will be painted on a building across North 6th Street from Cocha. The two buildings, located between Main and Laurel streets, have the same owner, Larry Sciacchetano.

There also are plans to add outdoor seating in a “parklet” outside Cocha and to conceal some unattractive garbage bins with a gate.

Taylor Jacobsen, an LSU landscape architecture graduate student, will paint the approximately 2,000-square-foot mural, the centerpiece of which will show birds, bugs and other critters flocking to a “tree of life.”

It symbolizes "putting roots here in downtown" with plans to stay for many years to come, Cocha owner Piñerua said. "We’re really, really excited about being in this time and place in downtown.”

He said the finished mural will be all the more meaningful because of the people in the RISE program who had a hand in painting it.

“Any time that they walk by here, they can tell their families, ‘I helped do that,’ ” Piñerua said. “That’s going to bring up their self-esteem. It’s going to bring up their self-worth.”