Editors Note: Sophie Alpert is the founder of the nonprofit organization Piece by Piece, which offers mosaic workshops and materials free of charge for residents in the underserved communities of Los Angeles. Through sales of their artwork, Piece by Piece provides opportunities for participants to earn supplemental income, with the goal of empowering each person to learn marketable skills and improve their self-confidence. Sophie has been selected as one of the five 2013 Unsung Heroes of Los Angeles and we asked her to share with us her personal story on what the motivation was to create this kind of program and the impact it’s making on her life and the lives of others.
By Sophie Alpert
I’m the daughter of a holocaust survivor and that has made a major impact on my life. It’s my starting place. I’m one of 8 children and I have always been grateful for the many blessings in my life so giving back was always part of my upbringing.
As a young adult, I worked on skid row at a child care center. The homeless families, especially the neglected children I encountered, affected me deeply. It was painful to see the poverty and feeling of hopelessness on the faces of these residents who were becoming more and more disenfranchised from their communities.
While raising my own four children, I would often think back to the faces of the children I met during my time at the center. I felt the need to do more for others less fortunate, because my own life was so blessed. Creating Piece by Piece was just a matter of timing because I always knew that I would go back to help. I just wasn’t sure what that would be or how I could make a difference.
A trip to South Africa in 2006 was the catalyst. I returned to Los Angeles inspired to create a program that would help the underserved using the successful model I had seen there. In South Africa, a few of the agencies I visited assisted HIV positive women by providing free beads and minimal instruction to create beautiful beaded dolls. The women earned a portion of the proceeds from the sales of their beaded work.
I wanted to provide a “hand up” rather than another “hand-out” by empowering disadvantaged residents to create and sell their own artwork. It was important for me to choose an art form that would be accessible and green. I’ve always loved mosaics. Using broken china, glass, tile and recycled materials became the perfect metaphor for putting back the pieces of shattered lives by creating something new and beautiful.
We provided all the materials, with particular emphasis on recyclable items, and helped sell the finished art. The organization grew very rapidly and the quality of the work kept getting better and amazing talent emerged.
The more I learned about the challenges our homeless and poverty stricken residents faced, the more involved and driven I became. I was meeting bright, talented, grateful people that had ended up on the street due to a myriad of circumstances. This included teens in trouble, families with children, veterans; abused, disabled, elderly and mentally ill individuals, and those addicted to drugs and alcohol.
Homelessness is complicated. Even though their stories are all different, the common theme is that most homeless people become disenfranchised from society. As I got to know the participants in our Piece by Piece program, many of their personal stories compelled me to try to help more by connecting people in need with resources outside of Piece by Piece. I formed valuable partnerships with other agencies to help address some of the issues this marginalized population faces on a daily basis.
I hope others are inspired to get involved because getting involved builds community. People that might never have met, bonded through shared experiences involving Piece by Piece. Sharing a passion can be a powerful connector and community builder.
It is overwhelming to address all the issues in our community including bettering our education system and homelessness. However, I’ve learned that every little effort counts. You never know the impact that you may have. Touching one life may lead that person to help another in need. Sometimes the greatest gift we can give another human being is the gift of believing in them and helping them realize their own strengths. We all have the power to touch hearts and minds, and to make our world a better place.
To find out more about Piece by Piece, click here: http://www.piecebypiece.org/index.html
To view photos and videos from the 2013 Unsung Heroes of Los Angeles, please click here: www.calfund.org/unsungheroes