Some days Leon Carter will stand and cry outside Steuart Hill Academic Academy, where his stepdaughter, 9-year-old Amirah Kinlaw, was struck and killed by a driver fleeing police in June.
While his grief can overwhelm him at the sight of the ever-growing pile of stuffed animals, balloons and handwritten messages left near where Amirah was killed, Carter said he finds comfort in returning to the Southwest Baltimore school.
"Her spirit is here," Carter said, gazing at the stage where his daughter walked during end-of-year ceremonies. "There's a lot of love in this room."
On Saturday, he joined other volunteers in painting bright colors over dull walls and doors in that auditorium and around the school — part of a community effort to provide returning students with a more inviting environment.
Soon after Carter arrived with his family, he was handed a paintbrush and blue paint and asked to begin on the auditorium's doors, while others painted over beige walls with glossy white.
In the center of the auditorium, an artist from the neighborhood will paint an eagle — the school's mascot — along with the school's motto, "Where Attitude Equals Altitude." There are also plans for new carpet, lighting and curtains to create a more formal stage. In September, the auditorium is to be dedicated to Amirah, who loved to sing.
"We're really doing this with your daughter's spirit in mind," Shani Phelan told Carter.
Phelan and other community leaders started a group called Saving Our Schools, which aims to help spruce up aging city school buildings and offer supportive resources for students, such as mentoring and leadership opportunities.
The Southwest Partnership, a group of community organizations, provided volunteers on Saturday at Steuart Hill and James McHenry Elementary/Middle School in Hollins Market.
Robert Lee, who serves on the Southwest Partnership board and is president of the SoWeBo Merchants Association, helped organize Saturday's event. He said every student should have the chance to learn in a clean, uplifting environment.
"I want the kids to come back to a nice, bright school. Clean and fresh," he said.
Both he and Phelan, who live in the community, said Steuart Hill immediately came to mind as a school to work on because of Amirah's death.
George Hopkins, another volunteer, remembered hearing about Amirah's death, and how close in age she was to his own daughter.
Hopkins was among several volunteers in the library, painting over plain cinder block walls with bright green and brown paint to go along with a forest theme started with green bamboo decorations.
He and his 3-year-old son carefully painted the crevices between the cinder blocks in the library. Another volunteer painted the flat surface with a rolling brush.
"It's tedious," Hopkins said with a smile. "But it's worth the work."
He said he's looking to move his family of five into Union Square, the community he serves as a pastor at the Gallery Church SoWeBo, which meets every Sunday at Steuart Hill. He said he felt compelled to give back to the school because when students succeed, so does the community.
"Community is a big part of the success of kids," he said.
For Assistant Principal Jeff Covington, Saturday was a way to get the community involved in the school.
"School should be a place that is inviting to everyone," Covington said while standing on top of a chair, carefully painting along the ceiling. Most of the wall had been covered.