Mar 23, 2014 1:59 PM by Adam Duvernay
SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) - It took a little bit of paint and a whole lot of love to make the change.
The Highland neighborhood back alley wasn't much to look at before Community Renewal and its kids got to work. Now Gilbert Drive offers some pretty simple words and soulfully simple images for nearby residents - "Respect your neighbor" and "We love Highland."
The mural went up on newly whitewashed fence boards behind the Community Renewal International Friendship House on Prospect Street. It took just about a month for the kids to map out the colors as part of their after-school program.
Four homes are depicted on the fence, all connected by a stream of color which washes from one window to the next. The portrait of Tabias Sabbath, one of the program's young boys, calls for "Respect" in a speech bubble. Hands and fingers spelling "Love" chime in with for whom that respect belongs.
"We wanted to work on that alley back there because that's where our kids play basketball and our alleys get a bad rap," said Britney Lee, a community coordinator for Shreveport's Community Renewal program. "They're not necessarily known as a hopeful place in some of our neighborhoods and we wanted to bring a little bit of color and a little bit hope into that specific alley where the kids play and the kids walk."
The Friendship House in Highland is part of a larger effort by Community Renewal to engage at-risk neighborhoods - those with high levels of crime and low income homes - and build a sense of friendship, trust and respect between residents.
"Highland is safer than it used to be. We want it to stay that way," said 15-year-old Trey Washington, who helped paint the mural. "We can help keep the younger kids safe. If they grow up thinking it's good - all the killing and shooting they see - we can make a difference showing them that stuff isn't good."
What makes Community Renewal different than many other organizations with similar goals is commitment to being a piece of the neighborhood over the long term, Lee said. Someone from the organization has been making Highland home for the past 18 years.
"We'll move in a family. My husband and I are a community coordinator family. In every Friendship House we have a private side where the family lives and a community side," Lee said. "We become a neighbor so we can become more effective. There are a lot of organizations and tactics that just go in and come out. That doesn't build up the trust that moving into a neighborhood and saying we're here to stay does."
The first step to proving their commitment often is establishing an after-school program, she said. The two-hour program is Monday through Thursday and includes tutoring, character building exercises, Bible study and community projects.
Community Renewal serves in Allendale, Queensborough, Cedar Grove and Barksdale Annex, but the Highland neighborhood has something those areas don't. The socio-economic situation there changes from street to street and provides an eclectic smattering representative of the whole Shreveport population.
Black or white, rich or poor, Yellow House of Highland intern Stephanie Boyd said her group, a partner with Community Renewal, wants to keep the focus on what makes those kids the same - their common home.
"Regardless of our different backgrounds, they're kids and they want to have fun. So we try to provide a place where they can have fun and learn to trust each other and us," Boyd said. "We love the idea of building around the community."
That takes a lot of work, Lee said. Many neighborhoods - even just neighborhood blocks - have left a bad taste in residents' mouths that isn't easily washed out.
"In some circles there was this disdain for Highland and for Shreveport in general. In some circles there was a growing pride," Lee said. "What we really wanted to do was, especially with the kids here, was, as they were growing into more whole people, we also wanted to grow their pride for their neighborhood so they would turn around and take care of it and invest back into it."
The mural was their big project to build that community.
Danielle Miller, a teacher at the Christian Center School in Shreveport and one of Lee's personal friends, designed the mural at Lee's request. She drew up the three pieces of the design, expecting the Friendship House to choose just one, but there was space for all of it.
"I love Highland. My husband and I plan to live here a long time," she said. "I wanted to communicate the love we have for each other and the neighborhood. I just wanted people to see that we're here together, and we love each other."
The lessons taught at the Friendship House in Highland convey the same feelings Miller and her friends and family have for their neighborhood. It gives the kids a safe place to express and understand community togetherness in a way they generally won't at school.
"It's making them proud to be from here," Miller said. "In the public schools, there's so much time focused on academics. But here they have a chance to learn about how to treat each other and to communicate about where they live."
That's what 13-year-old Deandre Harris said he's getting out of his time with the program. He said he wants more art on his street and a big party that could bring the whole neighborhood together at one time.
"The mural shows we love our neighbors and we want to take care of the people," Harris said. "The people who see it say it's nice and they respect us because of the work we did."