Elodie MAZEIN - This is one place where Jamar feels safe, painting with other boys to escape from the gunshots that ring out through his Washington neighbourhood, one of the most violent in the United States. “Life Pieces is a good place. You’ll always be safe at Life Pieces,” says Jamar, who is nine years old.

Ward 7 of the US capital is home to 70,000 people - 95 percent of them black - and has an unemployment rate more than double that of national levels. “I prefer to do my homework here - it’s not safe at Grandma’s,” Jamar, a bit shy at times, told AFP.

Jamar says he wants to be a firefighter or a police officer when he grows up. He is among 140 boys aged three to 17 who attend the Life Pieces to Masterpieces (LPTM) after school program each day.

The non-profit group, launched in 1996, provides an oasis of calm for young boys living in an area east of the US Capitol that is prone to gang activity and where the murder rate is among the nation’s highest.

LPTM “focuses on the development of black men using the concept of artwork,” explained executive director Selvon Malcolm Waldron. “It’s a safe space to be, in a loving environment.”

That’s a sharp contrast with what many of these children experience on a daily basis. Most live in single-parent homes, where they are awakened by police sirens in the dead of night and shootings. And sometimes, their reality hits even harder than that.

One of the LPTM “apprentices,” as the children are called here, was playing with friends when he saw his grandfather killed in a drive-by shooting, Waldron said. Jamar says he once found a firearm abandoned in an alley near his home. “When I hear shootings, I’m scared they will kill me, that they will shoot at me,” said Michael, 11.

The Four Cs

Life Pieces aims to “connect, create, contribute, celebrate” through its art program - the so-called 4Cs. Students connect by choosing a theme after discussing it and meditating, create by working on a piece, contribute by working together on the artwork and celebrate by exhibiting the works.

Dozens of the pieces are exhibited at shows, especially in Washington’s busy downtown Chinatown neighbourhood - brimming with art galleries, upscale dining and young professionals.

Last year, the group raised $22,000 from sales of the artwork. Other works are loaned out to places like libraries and children’s hospitals for free, or, for a fee, to the headquarters of Capital One bank. “It’s very empowering for them to see their artwork exhibited elsewhere,” said Waldron.

These collaborative acrylic paint canvases are in fact a patchwork, with different pieces sewn together. The boys can also paint their own individual pieces. “We have fun at Life Pieces. There’s food, we read, we draw. We do a lot of fun stuff,” said Jamar, a regular here for the past four years. Michael has enjoyed the food, art activities and mentors at LPTM for the past five years. “Life Pieces is like a second home. It helps you to get your act together.”

Citizens of the world

The organization also seeks to open up the world to these boys, with special presentations from outside speakers and trips beyond Ward 7. “We offer them a role model, an example. We provide a structure, a male model. We teach them values, life lessons,” said Maurice Kie, known at Life Pieces as Brother Mo. “We take the young men on a good ride.”

A former LPTM apprentice, Brother Mo has served as program coordinator since 2006. “It’s kind of a therapeutic process, like a good group therapy,” he explained. “We teach them to be gentlemen, global citizens.”

In a neighbourhood where only 33 percent of youths graduate from high school, Life Pieces apprentices have had a 100 percent success rate over the past five years.

Some have gone on to university or job training programs. An additional 25 teens aged 14 to 17 participate in a university preparation program once a week. And the organization also trains 10 to 15 young adults each year to become teachers’ aides.

Waldron wants to “shake up this profession,” where 60 percent are white women and only two percent are black men. LPTM has about 30 paid employees and around 50 volunteers, and operates on the grounds of a primary school. Its $1.5 million budget is largely funded by local private foundations.–AFP