Hard work: Linda Berry and Tina Dean drill screws into wood planks to help construct a wheelchair ramp on South Center Street during the United Way’s Serve the Valley 2018.
Tribune-Star file/Joseph C. Garza
Hard work: Linda Berry and Tina Dean drill screws into wood planks to help construct a wheelchair ramp on South Center Street during the United Way’s Serve the Valley 2018. Tribune-Star file/Joseph C. Garza
More than 44% of households in Vigo and surrounding counties struggle with financial hardships or are in poverty, according to United Way of the Wabash Valley.

The Strong Neighborhoods Impact Council is one of several initiatives the United Way is driving in order to help find solutions.

Over the last few years, the organization has developed a strategic plan to help households labeled as ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed). Those families are working hard to cover the basics but struggling to survive and are vulnerable to unexpected expenses.

The strategic plan created impact councils to focus on five key areas: education, health, financial stability, community building and a safety net to resolve immediate needs.

“We realized we could achieve our mission of moving 10,000 families out of financial struggles and into stability by partnering with local businesses to invest in the programs, leading the initiatives and inspiring residents in the community to join our efforts by volunteering to do some of the work,” said Abbey Desboro, marketing and communications director at the United Way.

The Neighborhoods Council’s goals revolve around building a community of safe, vibrant and inclusive areas where residents partner with organizations to build thriving neighborhoods that feel safe and connect residents to one another.

“We’re just getting started, although a team of about 20 volunteers have worked together for over a year to create a strategy guide,” said Christine Blakley, Strong Neighborhoods liaison.

The council’s first order of business was to assess neighborhoods through a combination of resident surveys on perceptions of safety, connectedness and local services, she said.

Data was collected on abandoned housing, empty lots, community centers, businesses and infrastructure (such as sidewalks and street lighting).

“We couldn’t have gotten as far as we have without the engagement of the residents,” Blakley said.

It’s a team effort instead of decisions made by a board of directors, Desboro said. Although she would love to see a shiny new splash pad installed at one of the city parks, it wouldn’t be appreciated if that’s not something the neighborhood residents thought was important.

“We don’t want to duplicate efforts, so we’re always looking for partners who are already conducting successful projects,” she said. “And we need individual volunteers who want to do the work but lack a group’s resources.”

From the initial surveys and community conversations, the Neighborhoods Council developed five key strategies to meet its objective: enhance the look and feel of neighborhoods by addressing public safety, blight elimination and city service improvements; grow communication among residents; build neighborhood identity and branding; and to build or engage neighborhood anchors where residents can gather.

Blakley said the council will begin implementing these key initiatives in the pilot neighborhood of the Ryves area. In order to establish relationships with residents, the council needs to find those neighbors who already take an active interest in what’s going on in their community. Then the council can work with them to help communicate with other neighbors and drive the work residents see as a priority.

The council is planning a block party in August with food and music at Herz-Rose Park to start some conversations and generate enthusiasm for the work projects ahead.

“This block party will help people get to know each other better. We’ll discover the neighborhood’s strengths and find ways to come together to make improvements and provide access to services,” said Martha Crossen, a Neighborhoods Council volunteer and Terre Haute City Councilperson.

A cleanup day is also being planned to help Ryves residents, especially with removal of large trash items. Erik Beverly with Change of Terre Haute is already conducting some major cleanups in that area, which is a perfect example of partnering with existing organizations to increase the impact.

Blakley also pointed to work being done by Maryland Community Church in 12 Points. Pastor Dan Gisel, who is also a United Way board member and a volunteer on the Neighborhoods Council, organized Hope Week with a group of about 70 adult and student church members last year. The group worked to identify low-income homeowners with disabilities and disadvantages who needed help with landscaping and improvement projects.

“With COVID restrictions preventing travel, we decided, as a church, to take our mission trip to the streets of our own neighborhood,” Gisel said. “We plan to do the same thing again this July by helping at least four homeowners.”

Church leaders have talked about working with the council to transform an entire block of homes with hopes that those residents would, in turn, volunteer to help other families.

“If you have a passion for helping people and a drive to take initiative, we need people who are willing to work together to improve their neighborhoods,” Gisel said. “Overall, the goal is to see Terre Haute at its best. Everybody wins when we have thriving neighborhoods.”
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