Larry Whiten wandered into the new youth center in south Minneapolis a few months ago, intrigued by its open-door policy, sunny setting and mission to empower young people through art. But he wondered if there would be a place at the table for him.

“I don’t consider myself an artist,” said Whiten, a soon-to-be 10th-grader at South High School. “I can’t draw. I can’t paint.”

The center’s founder quickly jumped in. “No such thing as can’t,” Lindsay Walz said. She named Whiten to her youth advisory board.

Walz, 30, opened Courageous HeARTS in April, on a busy corner at Cedar Avenue and E. 42nd Street, where a convenience store once stood. The center’s mission is to offer youths a safe space to heal, create and lead through a plethora of artistic endeavors, including gardening, yoga, filmmaking, sewing, tie-dye, songwriting, poetry, hip-hop dance and improv.

The center is a work in progress, its walls and beams newly painted in lime green and purple, couches and art supplies trickling in. Walz, too, is a work in progress, patiently stripping away layers that held her back and pushing forward to fulfill a dream she’s had since she was 16, although the path has been vastly altered.

On Aug. 1, 2007, 24-year-old Lindsay Petterson was heading to her Minneapolis apartment when her Volkswagen plunged into the Mississippi River as the I-35 bridge collapsed. Now-husband Dave Walz, with whom she worked at a group home for high-risk teens, would have been in the car, too, but he had the overnight shift.

“That was a good thing,” she said.

As her car filled with water, she punched and kicked at every surface before somehow breaking free. She spent five months in a back brace with a broken vertebrae, then years trying to regain her physical and emotional footing. Physical and massage therapy, chiropractors and yoga, as well as a survivors’ support group, all helped then and help still.

Yet, as the sixth anniversary of the bridge collapse approaches, she’s hoping “to change the story a little,” she said. “Post-five-years, I wondered, ‘What do you do a story about?’ ”

Her answer began in the hospital, when she read about a class called Soul Painting. “It drew me in right away,” Walz said. “Obviously, my soul needed a little work.”

A month later, still wearing her brace, she attended her first class through St. Louis Park community education. She recalls an ice cube tray placed in front of her “with every color you could imagine,” plus a blank piece of paper and brushes. Her first painting was of a big brown river. “I was so angry, so sad,” she said, recalling reaching for reds, grays and blacks.

“But, there was all this good stuff, too,” she told herself, such as the 250 people from her tiny hometown of Lake Lillian, Minn., who raised $10,000 for her medical bills.

She painted the other side with bright yellows and greens, then began pulling colors from one side and adding them to the other. “It was this moment of balancing the experiences,” she said.

She titled it “Life and Death.”

Working for years with struggling youths, she realized this could be a life-changing concept for them, too. “They are supersensitive to the idea of trust,” she said. “When you get down to it, trauma is a loss of trust,” whether that betrayal comes from a faltering structure or a human relationship.

At 16, Walz volunteered at a youth drop-in center in Olivia, Minn. She works part time with homeless teens at Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota and has a master’s degree in youth development leadership. While she dreamed of opening her own center, she faced a big roadblock.

“You don’t make any money,” she’d remind herself. “You’re a youth worker.”

Seed money for the center is coming from her bridge settlement. “I don’t know why I was still alive or how I got out of my car,” she said. “Maybe that’s why.”

‘Your story matters’

She and Dave, a counselor at Perspectives in St. Louis Park, now live about a mile away from Courageous HeARTS. She wanted to work “in my community.”

The center will offer evening classes, open studio and after-school activities. The focus is middle- and high school students. “This is an age when students start to say, ‘I’m not an artist.’ They self-censor, limit.” She wants to make art accessible to them again and forever.

“Your story matters,” she writes in chalk on a big board, dressed in bluejeans and a gray T-shirt with a bicycle.

“Dig deep. Be courageous. Imagination leads to possibility.”

She hopes to recruit youths through park programs, schools, youth worker referrals and her advisory board, now with nine members, which meets every Wednesday at 4 p.m. They help her “make the space interesting to kids.”

Last Wednesday, she listened respectfully as they shared ideas about classes and getting the word out about their Aug. 1 fundraiser at the Riverview Theater, featuring a screening of “Inocente,” the 2013 Academy Award-winning documentary short.

Seated with them, Walz no longer wishes away “what I hoped could be my life.” Instead, she said, “I’ve tried to make it a lesson about myself, and about grief and trauma. About the ways the ground falls out from underneath each of us.”