There's very little about Lorenzo McDonald's childhood that allowed him to enjoy the carefree experiences of others his age. There weren't any weekend trips to Six Flags or to Washington Redskins or Wizards games with his dad, or summer family vacations.
By age 13, he spent what little free time he had cleaning, cooking and ensuring that his eight brothers and sisters made it to school safely each day on a full stomach.
Life only became tougher for the teenager when his older brother Jeffrey was arrested and sent to jail. The teenager's duties and role as the head of the household weighed heavily on his small shoulders.
"Once he had to go away, I had to assume the responsibilities," said McDonald, now 21, who lives in Southeast. "I looked up to him, he was my best friend. So when he left, it was pretty hard."
But McDonald's brother gave him a gift before he left. He introduced him to Life Pieces to Masterpieces, an after-school program in Northeast, focused on instilling integrity, building character and developing leadership skills among young males.
The program also gave the teen an opportunity to be a child once again.
"It allowed me to regain my childhood," said McDonald, a broadcast journalism student at Bowie State University in Bowie, Md. "People were taking care of me, instead of me taking care of everyone in my house. People in the program were concerned about me. They made sure that my homework was done and that I was fed."
Mary Brown and Larry Quick founded Life Pieces to Masterpieces 17 years ago. The arts-based program that started with seven boys has since grown to currently accommodate more than 70, ages 3-17, who have created more than 1,000 works of art.
Five days a week, apprentices and mentors meet on the fourth floor of Dr. Charles R. Drew Elementary School in Northeast and spend three-and-a-half hours teaching youngsters about leadership, meditation, yoga and nutrition, along with a host of other life skills.
"We try to have our young men understand what their purpose is," said Selvon M. Waldron, the program's development and grants manager. "That may sound like an abstract concept for us adults, but having children as young as three recite to you their purpose for the future, allows them to broaden their perspective."
Life Pieces to Masterpieces also offers a Saturday Academy for high school students. Two Saturdays a month, the program's 25 juniors and seniors meet on the campus of George Washington University in Northwest for several hours to learn professional development skills and attend courses that prepare them for college.
William Pitts is Life Pieces to Masterpieces' director of operations and programs. Pitts retired from work in the juvenile justice arena and joined Life Pieces to Masterpieces five years ago.
"The program gives the young brothers a sense of self," said Pitts, 70, who lives in Bowie, Md. "It shows them that they're not what they see and hear every day. They do have a purpose and the ability to make decisions for self that's in their best interest. The general love that Life Pieces has for them lets them know that they're valued."
While Life Pieces to Masterpieces' curriculum touches on a vast array of subjects, art remains a cornerstone of the program's mission. Under the guidance of apprentice Seneca Wells, young artists create colorful, acrylic-on-canvas collage paintings. Bright shades of blue, red, yellow and green paint are splashed across blank canvases.
The youngsters' creations have been displayed for all to see. Courage on Canvas 2012 was featured at Pepco's Edison Place Gallery in Northwest where more than 100 of the students' paintings were showcased during an exhibit.
Many of the program's former students have returned as mentors and apprentices. In addition to his journalism broadcast coursework at Bowie State, McDonald spends roughly 25-30 hours a week at Dr. Charles R. Drew Elementary School with the Life Pieces to Masterpieces' youngsters, who like himself, have found stability and brotherhood within the program.
"I've seen a lot of transformations with Life Pieces," said McDonald, whose two-year-old son is now involved with the program. "I've even seen it with the mentors who have settled down and assumed responsibilities. Life Pieces taught me how to raise my standards and grow as a person and showed me that if I really want to succeed, I have to invest in myself first."