D.C. Arts Program Picks Up the Pieces
Cost of Vandalism Estimated at $10,000

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Volunteers scrubbed off the threat painted in red on the wall: "I will kill u n 5 4 3 2 1." They mopped floors, swept up broken glass and cleaned up sticky puddles of peanut butter, mustard and urine, trying to restore order Tuesday at a Northeast Washington nonprofit organization that was torn apart by vandals over the weekend.

On Wednesday, 50 children are expected to return to the all-day summer program run by Life Pieces to Masterpieces, which offers art, education and mentoring to young boys in the community. Life Pieces to Masterpieces started in the neighborhood around the Lincoln Heights housing complex almost 15 years ago. It has helped hundreds of low-income African American youngsters create artwork that tells about their lives.

On Monday morning, Andre Johnson and another volunteer arrived at the former middle school building on Hayes Street NE to find the front door unlocked. Inside, broken glass was everywhere, heavy desks had been overturned, papers and food and art supplies strewed across the floor. He and others at Life Pieces said that vandals had apparently used fire extinguishers to smash through doors, sprayed the chemicals in the hallways, climbed over approximately 10-foot-high walls to get into an office and classroom spaces, thrown paint, smashed computers, stomped on the flat-screen TV and punched through a canvas of artwork the boys had stitched together.

Johnson, a 17-year-old junior mentor, said his first thought was, "Wow. Life Pieces is gone."

William Pitts, director of operations and programs, got a call on his way to work and could not bear to go upstairs, where the program is centered. He cried at the entrance downstairs for about 40 minutes, steeling himself for what he would find. "But nothing prepared me for what I saw. . . . It's just unreal.

"I can't remember ever having that feeling before," he said. "Hurt, anger." And amazement at the rage, evident in every smashed window, every stomp mark. Nothing was stolen and little was left untouched. "That someone would have so much anger to damage something that was doing so much good in the community -- that's what hurt me the most," Pitts said.

Pitts estimated that repairs will cost about $10,000. The organization has an annual budget of about $650,000.

Workers at the program say they spent much of the morning crying but quickly stopped asking why Life Pieces had been targeted. "It could be anyone," executive director and co-founder Mary Brown said. "We have no idea."

Police have not identified suspects and could not confirm how people entered the building, which also houses the city's youth summer jobs program, said Robert Contee, commander of the 6th District. He asked that anyone with information call 888-919-CRIME.

"No sense trying to figure out insanity when you're sane," Pitts said, lifting hands covered in red paint from the cleaning. If anything, he said, it shows how great the need is for programs that mentor young people in neighborhoods without much opportunity.

On Tuesday, volunteers from Georgetown and American universities, from other community organizations and from the neighborhood came to the former Merritt Middle School at 5002 Hayes St. NE to work or to drop off water and food.

By midafternoon, the broken windows had been boarded up, and someone had hung paintings over the plywood. Maurice Kie pushed a buffer across a linoleum floor. He started coming to the program when he was a child growing up in Lincoln Heights public housing. "It was just a way to get out of the neighborhood," he said.

Like Andre Johnson, who started coming to Life Pieces as a 6-year-old drawn to the drumming sessions and the food, he said the program feels like family. Kie is 23 now, studying education at the University of the District of Columbia.

"We've had setbacks before as an organization, and I've had setbacks in my life," Kie said. "I know how you overcome. . . . We're still right here."

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