92944_000_008In the center of Salt Lake, youth discover something we all need in the center of our lives.
Think about the neighborhood you live in. Okay, now think of it 30 or 40 years from now. How will it look? Who will live there? Will it still hold special memories for you?
Neighborhoods age over time. As a housing specialist for Salt Lake City’s Community Outreach program, Mary Allen knows that. And she knows that sometimes the aging isn’t kind.
But what Mary wanted to do right now was convince more than 250 young people from the East Millcreek North Stake that even when a neighborhood gets run down, it’s still home to the people who live there.
As she spoke, Mary, a member of the Liberty Stake Eighth Ward, raised her hands and stretched them out, as if to embrace the east central city streets surrounding the community center where the youth volunteers were gathered.
“This used to be one of the main parts of town,” she said. “Anything south of here was pasture. The old-timers—and I am one of them—remember this as the heart of the city.”
But people moved to the suburbs, private homes became apartments, and the combination of limited-income senior citizens and low-income renters left the area neglected.
“Landscaping isn’t critical when you’re struggling just to survive,” Mary explained.
“I grew up in the Church,” she continued. “I used to go on Saturday morning service projects, just like you. I used to wonder if it meant much to cut some weeds or help paint a house. But I can see it from the other side now. This is my neighborhood, and what you’re doing means a lot. It brings a spark of life to people who wonder if anybody cares.”
It was almost as though Mary were a coach, giving a pep talk before a big game. When she finished, a team rushed out the doors, determined to make a difference in a day. They fanned out over a one-block area, mowing lawns, planting sod, cleaning up debris, scraping old paint, slapping on new paint, and generally sprucing and tidying up.
The stake’s program, called Adopt-a-Block, was developed over a period of months as they consulted with Mary and with the city council volunteer program. To lend support, the city donated 2,000 gallons of paint, plus rollers and brushes, and convinced a waste management company to donate the use of a dumpster, a land fill company to donate space at a dump site, and a grocery chain to donate trash bags.
“The point of the program was to expose the youth to a different environment and life-style, within 20 minutes of where they live,” said David Garrett, East Millcreek North Stake Young Men president. “We need to provide service for those in our own community. These are our brothers and sisters, and they need our help.”
Before and After
Sarah Heaton, 12, told of watching one older lady react to the cleanup. “She was watching as we worked on her yard and house. You could see her looking happier and happier as the work went on.
“I took a break and walked around the block a couple of times, just to see what everybody was doing,” Sarah continued. “It was amazing to see how many kids were involved, and especially great to see the before and after on some of the houses.”
Micha Smith, 16, spent the day mowing knee-high grass at the home of a Vietnamese refugee family. “They didn’t talk much; in fact I don’t think the parents spoke English at all,” Micha said. “But I came over to find a tool, and while I was picking it up, one of the children said ‘thank you’ in broken English. I had a good feeling about it. In fact, I still have a good feeling.”
“We re-did a flower garden for one woman,” said Jackie Wilde, 17. “At first she was a bit nervous. I think she wondered if we knew what we were doing. But she kept saying, ‘God bless you all.’ It made me feel something that I’ve never felt before, the joy was so deep. I felt like coming back the next day to ask her if I could do more.”
Lots of Success
The stories went on and on. A man brought out an old chain saw, eventually got it working, and joined the youth in cutting dead branches from a tree. A woman who initially refused to let the youth on her property changed her mind when she saw what was being done for her neighbors. Stephanie Poulsen, 18, and Marci Fuelling, 17, made “best friends” with a couple of young boys playing in one of the backyards. Todd Edwards, 18, worked side by side with high councilor Craig Beck, laying sod and forging a friendship.
In addition to the one-block clean-up, some of the youth also traveled to the west side of town to paint over gang slogans and graffiti.
“I’m sure people who live there don’t like having that stuff all over their neighborhood,” said Andy Peterson, 12. “I wonder if people who do it realize how much work it takes to cover it up.”
Changing the World
By the end of the day, the dumpster was full, several houses had fresh coats of paint and new lawns, and grass, trees, and bushes looked neat and trimmed. But far more important, the youth of East Millcreek had learned about serving others.
“I felt like Mary’s block was my block, too,” said Andrea Ence, 12.
Adopt-a-Block wasn’t an earth-shattering event. It didn’t even last the entire day. But ask Mary Allen if it helped, and her smile will tell you immediately.
“It may not have changed the world,” she said. “But I think it changed some hearts. And that’s the beginning of changing the world.”