Last year two of Community Housing of Wyandotte County’s (CHWC) neighborhoods achieved their Quality of Life Goals set forth in the Neighborhoods Now program. CHWC has built affordable housing, provided Home Buyer education and conducted a Community Building and Engagement program lead by the Community Organizer and the ART SQUAD, a group of neighborhood youth that use ART and creative thinking to address neighborhood concerns, creating community spaces for residents to meet, mingle and learn.
Four blocks to the south of these neighborhoods is another one of CHWC’s neighborhoods but this one has had a total reversal of the previous two. Over the past 10 years this neighborhood has fought to stay alive. The ethnic make up has been flipped, new and old neighbors have crossed paths in trucks loaded with furniture and personal belongings. Some properties sold as flip properties with unaccountable landlords. Some were vacated and since torn down. Vacant lots are a source of blight, tire and trash accumulation as well as a sign of a thoroughly disconnected resident network. In the middle of all this sits an elementary school where 97% of the children qualify for the free lunch program, 40% of the population is at the poverty mark and very few amenities exist within walking distance. This is a neighborhood in need of some help.
From a Community Building and Engagement (CB&E) viewpoint you reach into your bag of tools and try to figure out what might work best to start the process of engagement but first you have to do a little research. Who lives here? What are the age groups and historic background? What other assets exist. Are there potential partners that could help with the process and of course – are there grants that currently exist to help get things started.
We have always felt that when trying new initiatives the first thing you do is find a project to do in the neighborhood, spend some time there getting to know people, but more importantly ‘do work’. Lead by example and build trust. The next part is figuring out what project would have the impact you want, to draw folks in and at the same time help address a common concern.
Two years ago the state of Kansas accessed our county as being the least healthy out of 105 counties statewide. This was a solemn report that everyone, community wide, felt the sting from. All agreed something had to be done. CHWC has experience with community gardens. We had engaged youth and encouraged them to develop programs that address the needs of residents. We had worked to improve upon a local park by adding trees, landscaping, a walking trail, ADA accessibility, lights and started a walking club but what would work in this new place? The decision was made to pursue grants that would help improve the overall health of the neighborhood through a garden, programming and/or education. We found a grant that would help support the building of an urban farm but would require a leadership role from local Government. When we contacted the Mayor’s office we were told that they would be very happy to take on that task since the parameters of the grant matched very well with the Mayors ‘Healthy Community Initiative’.
In April we secured a third of an acre of vacant and weed baring property located about 80 feet east of the before mentioned elementary school. The lots required a great deal of work to clear dead trees, remove debris and cut a forest of brush. We ground up tree branches into mulch, cut stumps to serve as seating around the property and make an immediate impression on neighbors and school children as they passed by.
In May we had established a primary growing area, sectioned off beds with wattles, added enriched garden soil and worked with neighborhood children to plant seeds and plant they did. Faster then we could track. We had sunflowers and basil popping up all over the place but what a great first step to engagement.
As the summer went on the plants and flowers attracted bees and butterflies, little yellow finches and every dog and cat in the neighborhood. Engaging with the local animals is a must for establishing a place in the neighborhood.To be honest the involvement of some of the adult volunteers was disappointing. We had a regular support of youth camps, faith organizations, students, medical students, nurses and allied health professionals. We benefitted from 1,225 hours (approximately) of volunteer labor. Ninety-five percent of the volunteers were between the ages of 13 and 18 years of age – that alone is inspiring. Getting long-term commitment from residents with busy lives and families can be slow coming. Adding a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), an educational component about general best practices for gardening, crop management and pest control can add to the interest.There’s potential for a partnership with the school across the street, working with students to create a mobile lab at the farm for plant science. What better way and place for urban kids to learn then right in their own neighborhoods. It might just be worth the organizations continued support even if grants don’t exist.
Splitlog Farm has been a long and nearly exhausting effort these past 100 days but already in this short period of time CHWC has established a place in the community, open to all, providing food, opportunities for volunteerism, providing community service hours for area students. Created an environment for community gatherings, picnics and just for kids to play. Next year the ART SQUAD’s summer Art classes will be at the Farm as well. All part of a plan to breath new life into this neighborhood and to lead by example!