When Nasseeka Denis told the students of Aces in Motion, a sports-based youth development program, about a volunteering opportunity to paint houses, she expected about six to show up. She was amazed when 23 high school students boarded the vans to the Porters Neighborhood to spend two days pressure washing and then painting the home of a senior resident.
One of the main pillars of the AIM high school program is service, said Denis, the academic director of AIM After School. So the group jumped at the opportunity to help after seeing a Facebook post by Faye Williams, a community organizer and creator of M.A.M.A’s Club, a Black community center.
“She needed volunteers, and we’re all about service,” Denis said. “Let’s get out and do it.”
The volunteering opportunity arose from a partnership with Porters Quarters, a historic Black Gainesville neighborhood and AIM. On Oct. 15, about 30 people gathered to paint another home in the neighborhood. The two events are part of a larger beautification process in the Porters Quarters community that has been plagued by gentrification.
AIM previously led a service project partnered with Grace Marketplace to make 150 bag lunches for residents at Grace. They also partake in trash pickups around the community. When a service project arises, Denis said she gives the students a background story on the project and gives them the opportunity to participate.
“I want to empower them to do it,” Denis said. “I never want to force them.”
Denis was proud of the students who showed up to help out because they wanted to be a part of preserving the historic neighborhood.
All these kids are out here socializing, talking with one another and knowing they’re a part of something bigger than themselves,” Denis said. “It just brings so much joy to my heart.”
Denis said she can feel the history that resides in the Porters neighborhood, and she hopes the students see they are being a part of history and bringing change.”
“That’s how they learn why it’s so important to give back to the community that has poured into you,” she said.
At 5:30 on Thursday, the first day of the project, the students picked up paint buckets, brushes and fold out tables and set off down the street to a block with older, gray-blue homes. They listened as Williams and Gerard Duncan, pastor of Faith Ministries in Gainesville thanked them for being there and emphasized the importance of giving back to the community.
The students gathered in front of the home as Duncan showed them how to use a pressure washer and directed them on which spots on the home to hit. When he was done, he held out the pressure washer and said, “Who’s going first?”
The students hesitated and poked fun at each other, urging anyone but themselves to go first. Finally, Natalia Douglas, a 17-year-old East Side high school student was pushed to the front.
Her friends laughed and cheered her on as she began spraying down the home. Douglas was at the event to send a message and show up for the community.
“We do matter,” Douglas said. “It’s a movement like we finally put our foot down because back in the day we couldn’t. Now we can show people that we have voices too.”
As the evening progressed, the students and adult volunteers cleaned the outside of the entire home. They took breaks to talk and dance to the upbeat music that played. Williams watched the students work with a small smile.
She knows everyone who lives on the street — many of them are seniors. Williams wants to help the older residents first in the beautification process.
“The seniors really need a lot of help,” Williams said. “It’s part of our tradition to always get the elderly folks and the babies help first.”
On day two, the same students gathered, paint rollers in hand, to begin painting the home. Williams wore a shirt that read “It’s about us” as she addressed them and sent them off with a “Power to the people”
They got to work, lining the windows with painters tape, placing drop cloths and removing their shoes to avoid paint splatters. Some used long rollers to paint a light blue shade onto the walls, while others crouched shoulder-to-shoulder, covering the dull gray of the wooden slats with a fresh white.
Ruby Johnson, the 64-year-old homeowner, sat inside excitedly waiting for the students and volunteers to finish. She’s lived in the home since 1992 and can’t remember the last time her home received a fresh coat of paint.
Months ago, during a community meeting about the beautification project, Johnson put her house on a list to get painted. She found out about three days before that her house was finally going to be painted.
Johnson believes community projects like these will help people come closer together and be appreciative. The neighborhood, she said, is tight knit, and she’s happy to see people providing service to her and her neighbors.
“We definitely look out for each other over here,” Johnson said.
She’s grateful for the students taking time away from their Friday to help her, she said. She wouldn’t have been able to afford to paint her home on her own.
“I’m pretty excited,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I’m like a kid waiting in the house for them to hide the Easter eggs.”
The students continued working in groups around the house — taking turns spray painting and carefully painting around the edges.
Duncan shouted out words of encouragement.
“You’re doing good!” he said.
As it approached 5:30, the sun began to set, the students gathered in front of their work and smiled for a picture. Their clothes and hair were splattered with paint. After two days of hard work, they were finished. The house behind them looked bright, covered in a fresh coat of blue paint.