MAKING A DIFFERENCE
By Darlene Donloe
When Sophie Alpert launched her nonprofit Piece By Piece in 2007, she saw it as a way to bring beauty into the world by creating mosaic art.
She modified and modeled the program after one she witnessed in South Africa in 2006 where women, some with HIV, created art with beads, sold them, and gave back the proceeds.
“It seemed like a great model,” Alpert said. “It was a simple enterprise. We have some Third World situations happening here on Skid Row. When I returned, I went into fundraising mode. Taking that model loosely, I translated it into something that would work in L.A.”
Instead of beads, Alpert chose mosaics because she knew the material would be readily available.
She named the organization Piece By Piece because “it resonated with me.”
“It’s all about putting the pieces of someone’s life back together using art as a tool,” she said. “Art is to empower people and make them feel good about themselves and bring beauty. Art is a great universal communicator.”
A mosaic is a picture made up of small parts which are traditionally tiny tiles made out of terracotta, pieces of glass, stones, marbles, clay ceramics, or marble and usually inlaid into floors and walls.
“For mosaic art, we use discarded materials,” she said. “We’re essentially using somebody else’s trash. It’s the metaphor of creating new life.
“I knew I wanted to do something green. My hubby is in the recycling business. Mosaics are beautiful. It wouldn’t be expensive and you don’t really have to train anybody.”
Alpert was able to get the nonprofit off the ground quickly. She wasn’t a mosaic artist herself, so she went to Northern California and took classes in mosaic school. She made some cold calls and did her research and found local mosaic artists in Los Angeles.
Six months after she came up with the idea, she was in business.
After raising the money, she actively sought volunteer artists and was pleasantly surprised when she received a lot of positive responses. She hired visiting artists “from all over the country.”
“I asked people to come and teach in a community room in a supportive housing community room in South L.A.,” said Alpert, a Brownsville, Texas, native. “I hired a teacher, who is still with us. I posted fliers around South L.A. saying it was free to the community.
“The fact that the material and the instruction were free was a big draw. Most people had nothing to do. They had a lot of time. They were isolated, depressed and had time on their hands. We wanted to have a nurturing environment. It became a family to them.”
In strategic partnership with Skid Row Housing Trust, Piece by Piece’s mission is to provide free mosaic art workshops to residents of Skid Row, South Los Angeles and surrounding areas who have experienced homelessness and/or are living with economic insecurity.
Operating out of the trust’s Star Apartment building on Sixth Street and Maple Avenue, Piece by Piece offerings are a component of the many supportive services provided by the trust’s direct service staff. There are plans to relocate to a different location in South L.A. very soon.
Personnel within Piece by Piece work collaboratively with professional staff serving residents of Skid Row Housing Trust buildings to promote wellness, improve stability, foster creativity and enhance the quality of life.
Piece by Piece does outreach in the very diverse transient community to find participants who include men, women, people with challenges, veterans and more.
Piece by Piece workshops builds community and a sense of belonging. Learners are inspired to set goals for themselves and are invested in the success of others. The resulting impact is improved connection, esteem, and motivation leading to increased stability and quality of life.
The program creates a culture of mutual support and high expectations for individual success. Participants train in the context of meaningful contribution to the learning community, with personal connection the key factor promoting achievement.
Piece by Piece workshops nurtures connection and creativity, bringing improved wellness to the lives of individuals facing complex issues that have made them vulnerable to homelessness.
The Piece by Piece community fosters hope and in so doing reduces barriers to success often faced by those who have lacked opportunity. Piece by Piece offers a way to develop individual talents and empowers its participants to reach their full potential.
To further inspire participant artists, Piece by Piece has monthly themes that guide its workshops and broadens its larger vision of art. Each month, they take a look at all aspects of a subject and piece together ways to interpret their discoveries into a mosaic.
“It’s open to an underserved community,” said Alpert, a married mother of four and grandmother of nine. “Participants from Skid Row are able to forget about their circumstances for a few hours and create mosaics.”
Some sell their art and receive 60% while Piece by Piece gets 40% for operating expenses.
Alpert, who used to work at Para Los Ninos child care center as its development director, found that some are so proud of their achievements and accomplishments that they keep their art to give as gifts to family and friends.
“That is a sign of pride,” said Alpert, who studied Spanish literature, education and art at UC Davis and UCLA. “They feel accepted, no judgment. They are being valued.”
When some first started, Alpert said they came in “sad and wouldn’t talk.”
“They didn’t talk much,” she said. “They would be very quiet. Four classes later, they open up and create something.”
Items are sold for $35, framed work goes for $55 and some items have sold for thousands. Art created includes frames, votives, big wall art, and smaller pieces. Before COVID, Piece by Piece participated in art shows. Today, all sales are online.
When it’s in full swing, Piece by Piece has 30 to 35 participants. During COVID, it dropped to 10 to 12 and went virtual.
Workshops are currently held via Zoom.
“People have been helped with devices so they can do Zoom,” Alpert said.
Alpert hopes to return to in-person workshops in January. She said the workshops have been very successful.
“We do know many participants have moved out of Skid Row and are now living in apartments,” she said. “One who started with us in 2008 and had a rough time with alcohol, became so talented that we hired him as an assistant instructor. He even started his own nonprofit. It changed his life. He credits Piece by Piece and said he wants to give back.”
Alpert believes the work she is doing is of necessity and, therefore, is important.
“I feel blessed in my life and compelled to give back,” she said. “Everybody deserves a chance in being able to have a life filled with beauty and purpose. It gives people hope, a reason to believe. It’s something to look forward to.”
“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.