Holding her paint roller as it dripped Mardis Gras Green, Melinda Cummings stepped back to admire her work at the Bernard Baruch Community Center.

“Kids are going to want to come here,” Cummings said as she looked around the room, its previously white walls transformed by splashes of pink, lavender and lime.

Dozens of volunteers from Habitat for Humanity’s Brush with Kindness program hauled paint cans and wielded brushes Feb. 5 at the community center—a hub for after-school activities for kids living in Baruch housing development in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and one of many New York City Housing Authority facilities long overdue for maintenance work.

The program is part of an initiative to improve learning environments in public housing developments, especially as city crime rates continue to rise.

According to the NYCHA Safety and Security Task Force report released earlier this month, 59 percent of public housing residents surveyed in May 2010 reported serious crimes in their neighborhood over the last year. More than half said they don’t leave their apartments for fear of crime in their development, and 61 percent said they were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their overall quality of life.

Erin Congdon, project coordinator for Brush with Kindness, said four NYCHA sites in Manhattan and Brooklyn have been painted since January, including Baruch Community Center. Brush with Kindness volunteers are expected to tackle one more project by the end of this month.

“We’re giving kids somewhere to go,” Congdon said. “If we can improve the conditions here, if we can make it something more vibrant and something they’re more interested in coming to and spending their time at, then that’s a great thing for them.”

It’s a change some neighborhoods desperately need. Cummings, 45, a single parent, currently lives with her teenage son on Seventh Avenue and 133rd Street, a community she said is challenged by drugs and violence.
She said she’s seen the negative influence an unhealthy neighborhood can have on young adults, and volunteers as a way to help families like hers.

“Kids should have somewhere like this to play and to interact with other kids,” Cummings said, referring to the newly painted Baruch Community Center. “My son is almost 16 and he has nowhere to go to interact with kids. He can’t interact with the community. He doesn’t want to go outside.”

Congdon said the program seeks to improve neighborhood public housing as a whole as opposed to assisting one family at a time. She said Habitat for Humanity reviews dozens of project sites recommended by NYCHA and decides which facilities are most in need of maintenance.

At the Baruch Community Center, volunteers dipped brushes into cans of Sassy Lilac and Sea Frolic Blue, adding second coats and painting vibrant geometric patterns down the center’s hallway.

After four days of work, center director Evelyn Melendez said she couldn’t believe the difference a fresh coat of paint could make.

“It brightens things up and adds creativity,” she said. “It shows the kids that everything doesn’t have to be one shade of gray. They can get out of their shell and be individuals—just be themselves.”

On any given day, Melendez said 26 children use the community center as a space to do homework and develop social skills through arts and crafts, dance groups and theater workshops.

She said their reaction to the makeover was overwhelming.

“The kids were like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is beautiful,” Melendez said. “They couldn’t express how wonderful and beautiful it was.”

For Cummings, who plans to move out of her current apartment and into Habitat for Humanity housing in the South Bronx later this spring, the chance to paint is a chance to give back to others in need.

“I’ve always helped out people, but it’s like I’m extending myself even more,” she said about volunteering. “You get to meet a lot of people who, at some point, are in the same position you were in. It helps to know you aren’t the only one who’s going through with it.”