No tolerance for hate: Madison Co. high students, teachers respond to graffiti attack on young family's home, start spring break with rainy day cleanup work

Richmond Register, April 1, 2017

MCHS students, teachers lend helping hand

by Ricki Barker

When a young mother opened her garage doors one morning last week, she said she was not expecting the bright red graffiti hastily spray painted on her white doors.
“Lesbian,” it read in ugly dripping letters.

To make matters worse, Whitney Preston said she walked around her home to find black spray paint had been used to tag the truck parked in her driveway and “lesbo” graced the concrete on her back stoop.

However, Preston said she was more “aggravated” by the vandalism to her property than by the words themselves.

“It’s 2017. Lesbian isn’t really an insult anymore,” Preston said matter-of-factly. “I wasn’t hurt by the words. I was really angry that someone snuck on my property and damaged it.”

Preston, who is new to the area and only recently moved into the home with her wife and son, said it was not the welcoming she expected.

“I guess whoever did this wanted me to feel uncomfortable or try to brand me in the neighborhood,” she said. Whether or not the vandals intent was to mark Preston as a modern Hester Prynne, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s protagonist in “The Scarlet Letter,” with shameful big bold red letters so that others would shun her and her family, their actions did the opposite.

“When this happened, a lot of my neighbors made it a point to introduce themselves and offer to help me,” Preston said. “They have been so great to me and my son. Many have offered to help clean up the mess or apologized for what happened.”

A lot of her neighbors, Preston said, offered her words of encouragement and support.

A group of Madison Central High School students and teachers went a step further and, on Friday in the midst of sporadic rain showers, worked to remove the graffiti from Preston’s home.

Madison Central teachers Evan Barker and Susan Cintra said they knew they had to do something to help Preston and got students from the school’s Young Democrats and Gay, Straight Alliance Clubs to help.

Cintra is a neighbor of Preston and sent a message to the woman on Facebook to see if the clubs could be of assistance.

Preston said a quote for the cleanup costs to remove the paint from her stoop, home and truck was very significant.

So the students and teachers got to work and put their heads together to try and remove the graffiti in a cost-conscious way.

Barker said the GSA club was looking for a community service project and this situation really hit home.

“A lot of clubs at Central do food drives or coat drives,” Barker said. “There is something going on all the time, and that’s a great problem to have, but we wanted to do something different.”

The English teacher said when Preston’s home was vandalized because of her sexuality, Barker knew his students would be eager to help.

Central senior Kamren Gatson said, when Barker mentioned the project, he was immediately on board.

Gatson, a problem-solver and young Renaissance man, said he was excited to find a way to remove the paint from Preston’s concrete stoop.

“I love science and we put it to good use here,” Gatson explained as he crouched by Preston’s back stoop armed with a heat gun and torch.

Fighting the rain, Gatson used the gun and torch to melt the paint from the concrete, which scrubbed off after a few passes.

Students also came armed with paint brushes and cleaning solutions to take care of Preston’s garage door and truck tailgate.

Using a combination of chemicals and mildly abrasive products, students managed to completely clean off the black spray paint from the truck.

“It’s amazing,” Preston said as she gazed at the truck’s gleaming and graffiti- free tailgate. “I’m just so in awe that these students are out here in the rain, scrubbing off my truck and garage doors. It’s overwhelming and very blissful.”

Central student Taytem Strauel said she didn’t mind sacrificing her first free hours of spring break to help someone.

“No one should ever do this to someone else,” she said. “I think everyone should be treated as equals. You don’t have to agree with that person or even like them, but you also shouldn’t go around messing up their stuff.

“They worked hard for it and it’s a shame someone thought it would be okay to come over here and do this.”

Cintra said Friday afternoon’s cleanup shows what can happen when people come together and share their talents and ideas.

In addition to getting the paint off of Preston’s truck and back stoop, the students and teachers also painted her garage a new crisp, clean white with paint donated from Hall’s Richmond Paint Center.

Preston said Friday she is grateful for the community support, especially since her wife, who is a soldier in the U.S. Army, is away.

“Whatever they (the vandals) tried to do didn’t work,” Preston said. “This actually brought me a lot closer to people. I have met some great people through this and feel really lucky to have such good neighbors and people in the community.”

Preston said she is working with the Madison County Sheriff’s Office to find the people that vandalized her property and will be looking into having the incident filed as a hate crime.

••• In response to the event, Bereans for Fairness, the Madison County Chapter of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, will be hosting a rally and march in support of the LGBT community on Monday at 5 p.m. It will begin on the lawn of Union Church at 200 Prospect Street in Berea.

According to a press release, local leaders immediately began planning a rally and march in response to Preston’s incident in order to show support for the LGBT community and to call on the Berea Human Rights Commission and city council to address the situation.

“This is not the Berea we know and love,” shared Berea College professor and social justice activist Meta Mendel-Reyes. “The incident highlights the continued need for LGBT protections in our community, including an anti-discrimination fairness ordinance and hate crimes protections. We feel it’s time to stand up for our Berea — the inclusive and welcoming community we love.”

For now, Preston said as she watched coats of white paint cover up the garish red letters, she is happy to know she has friends and support in her new home.

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