WAPATO — Last month, Khahn Vy Le painted a few butterflies on a badly tagged house in the 800 block of Simcoe Avenue; she found more graffiti on it when she returned recently. But instead of merely painting over the graffiti, she converted it into still more flowers and butterflies.
“Now just respond to it,” she said as she dabbed a brush into paint on a recent summer morning. “Do something prettier from whatever they say and hopefully when they respond with something mean, we’ll say something nice back and the back-and-forth dialogue might cause them to eventually say something nice back instead of something mean.”
Vy Le was participating in Wapato’s annual Painting Pride project, which was spearheaded a few years ago by Sister Mary Ellen Robinson, director of the Marie Rose House, an educational outreach program here.
This year, the project that aims to clear the city of graffiti and inspire youth to take pride in their community was organized by Wapato High School junior Alondra Zaragoza.
Armed with paint brushes, rollers and buckets of paint, Zaragoza and a half-dozen volunteers — some from Seattle University — descended on the vacant, boarded-up house that had become a canvas for area gangs to convey their presence. Their goal is to transform the gang graffiti, and hopefully attitudes, into something more positive.
“Graffiti brings a bad image to the town and a bad message to the kids living here,” Zaragoza said while standing in front of the house. “If they grow up in this environment, they may think graffiti is normal, and it’s not. We want them to take pride in their community.”
Volunteers popped lids off paint cans, dipped their brushes and went to work, using the shapes of the graffiti to form butterflies, flowers, a tree and little houses.
“I feel like this community needs so much help,” said Vy Le, a Seattle University student. “I’ve been here for a week and I saw how beautiful it is and the people’s struggles here and I really want to highlight that.”
Zaragoza headed this year’s segment of the project as part of her bid for Miss Wapato, which will be decided in September. Her effort to combat graffiti ties into a larger movement geared to improve the city’s overall image.
”Once you have a beautiful wall, it brings community pride and it takes effort to maintain,” Zaragoza said of the mural. “Our goal is to have no graffiti in Wapato.”
Wapato has long been seen as a place where drunkards beg for money outside businesses and gangs persistently make their presence known on building walls and alley fences.
But nowadays, a drive through the city tells more than one story. Contrasting with those problems are new developments, an uptick in the local economy and a commitment by community members such as Zaragoza to make a difference.
In recent years, a small strip mall with a new restaurant replaced an old dilapidated house on West First Street. A few blocks away on Third Street, a local investor converted a defunct movie theater downtown into a community hall, and a woman opened a clothing store in the old Red Cross drug store that sat vacant for years. There’s also a new boot shop downtown, and two fruit warehouses are planning expansions that will bring dozens of new jobs.
Taxpayers also have been willing to step up. Wapato School District voters approved a bond that saw the construction of a new $40 million high school.
City Councilman Rick Foss said the renewed efforts to improve the city are refreshing.
“Wapato has had some successes,” he said. “We’re in the middle of resurfacing and rebuilding some roads. Valicoff Fruit is expanding. I salute a lot of people — I see families in town fixing up their homes.”
Zaragoza and her team of volunteers hope their work helps keep the momentum going.
In fact, there’s hope that a positive and meaningful dialogue will begin between those painting graffiti and volunteers transforming it into murals.
Last year, the Painting Pride project turned a graffiti-covered fence in a nearby alley between West Wapato and Simcoe avenues into a mural depicting a neighborhood with children playing. That mural has remained unscathed.
If anything, just showing up to donate time to help improve a community sometimes is enough to inspire others to do the same, said Prince Jadusingh, who recently graduated from Seattle University.
“It makes me feel good,” he said. “I feel like I’m making a contribution to the community and that makes me feel good.”
Inspiring others is the project’s aim, Zaragoza said. “It sends a message that this is our community; we have to take care of this.”
• Phil Ferolito can be reached at 509-577-7749 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/philipferolito.