Member Spotlight: Sophie Alpert

 
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Despite all that he had been through, all of the horrors he had witnessed, Sophie Alpert’s father made sure that she and her seven siblings lived a very blessed life. A Holocaust survivor, he instilled in his children a spirit of gratitude and a sense of purpose. From a young age, Sophie knew that she had to do something important with her life and give back in some manner.

In her early twenties, Sophie worked on LA’s Skid Row at a child care center called Para Los Niños, until she and her husband had their first child. The homeless families, especially the neglected children she encountered, affected her deeply. “That experience was really life-changing for me,” she says, “just seeing the poverty and neglected kids, it was just very hard. Especially once I had my own child.”

In her early thirties and raising four children, Sophie would often think back to the faces of the children she met at Para Los Niños. “I thought it was time to do something full-time,” she says.

In 2006, Sophie accompanied her husband on a business trip to South Africa; it would serve as a major catalyst for Sophie’s next venture. While Sophie’s husband attended meetings during the day, Sophie visited different start-ups, nonprofits, and agencies, all fighting poverty in new and creative ways. She was particularly inspired by one organization that was assisting HIV-positive women by providing materials and workshops to create beaded dolls and other works of art. The women earned a portion of the proceeds. “That model was so simple and transformational that I figured I should be able to tweak it and do something in LA,” Sophie says. Specifically, Sophie wanted to bring the model to Skid Row, where she once worked.

First, if Sophie was to implement the model in LA, she needed to find materials. “The people I’d be teaching had to eventually be able to source materials on their own. Found objects, like recycled glass, broken china, ceramics, were ideal,” Sophie says. But what to do with these materials? The answer: mosaics.

She soon founded Piece by Piece, a nonprofit organization that offers mosaic workshops and materials free of charge for residents in underserved communities. One can’t help but point out the metaphor here: taking the things society has discarded, putting them back together to form something whole.

Through sales of their artwork, Piece by Piece provides opportunities for participants to earn supplemental income, with the goal of empowering each person to learn marketable skills and improve their self-confidence.

“At the first workshops we held, the participants were so proud of their work that they wanted to keep it, as gifts to give to their family and friends,” Sophie recalls. As the program participants became more skilled, Piece by Piece started taking on commission work, and the pieces got more expensive. The budding artists couldn’t get enough: “A dresser thrown on the curb, a discarded table, they were mosaicing everything!”

Sophie believes in a philosophy of giving those in need a hand up rather than a handout. “A hand out doesn’t feel good to anybody,” she says. “It’s a desperate measure. A hand up is empowering, and it gives somebody hope and a chance to do something on their own.” Some participants have gone on to become really talented artists; one is even an assistant instructor of art and is starting his own mosaic organization.

Sophie was introduced to Mindy three giving cycles ago by Lisi Teller, who said the two had a lot in common. She was right. “I loved what Mindy was doing, and I thought that purposeful giving was a wonderful way to help other people--the whole idea of collaborative giving really resonated with me,” she says. Sophie also loved the site visits--getting to learn about exciting new organizations first-hand, much like she did in South Africa.

“I think what Mindy’s doing is amazing,” Sophie says through a smile. “The women I’ve met and the organizations that they’re involved in are so inspiring and motivating.”

In addition to founding Piece by Piece and being a member of the SAM Initiative, Sophie volunteers with Bet Tzedek, the non-profit legal services organization, as a Spanish translator helping undocumented immigrant families. She is also very involved in Homelessness Initiatives; having served on a task force at Valley Beth Shalom and currently working on a YPO program to raise awareness and take action.

Sophie’s greatest prides are her husband, Alan, their 4 children and their accompanying spouses, and 6.75 grandchildren.