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Thursday, May 12, 2005 11:42 am

Taking it to the street

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William Castor, Vinegar Hill Neighborhood Association president
PHOTO BY JOB CONGER

People from all over Springfield plan to meet this Saturday morning at Laurel United Methodist Church, at the corner of Walnut Street and South Grand Avenue. They won’t be there to pray; instead, after a breakfast of coffee, juice, and doughnuts, they’ll get their marching orders and spend the rest of the day hard at work — for no pay.

These volunteers will gather for Sprucing Up Springfield, a community project organized by the Springfield Community Federation. Launched eight years ago, Sprucing Up Springfield is one of the federation’s two annual neighborhood-transformation projects. The other, Miracles on 13th Street, takes place Aug. 2.

Last year, the task of coordinating Sprucing Up Springfield and Miracles was assigned to federally funded AmeriCorps volunteers based at the Dr. Edwin A. Lee Resource Center, 501 S. 13th St., which also serves as SCF’s home.

Soon after AmeriCorps events coordinator Amy Chase arrived in September, fresh from college, she invited all Springfield-area neighborhood associations to apply for the 2005 effort.

Only one association could be selected, but early concern about a deluge of applications proved unfounded. Only one applied: the Vinegar Hill Neighborhood Association, formerly known as the Central City Neighborhood Association.

The project had been explained to members during the November 2004 meeting, and members enthusiastically voted to apply to participate.

When William Castor III, the association’s current president, took office in January, Vinegar Hill members were tapped to serve on several Sprucing Up Springfield committees with responsibilities ranging from feeding volunteers to identifying projects.

“Our biggest challenge was to find enough resident homeowners with work to be done,” Castor says. “We were offering help with gutter cleaning, minor improvements, trimming, and planting, but people were unfamiliar with Sprucing Up Springfield, and they were reluctant to get involved.

“On the other hand, volunteers came out of the woodwork, thanks in part to Betty Green who led our part of the volunteer recruitment,” Castor says. AmeriCorps volunteers also worked on all aspects of planning the event and made most initial contacts of area businesses.

Charlene Edmiston, executive director of SCF, participated in the first Sprucing Up Springfield and has watched it evolve from an event that required part-time attention from several of her staff employees to the better-focused project it has been for the past two years, thanks to the full-time AmeriCorps coordinator.

All federation employees will be volunteering to help May 14.

“Sprucing Up Springfield has never consisted of a bunch of us [social workers] going into a neighborhood and telling them what we’re going to do,” she says. “It’s a partnership between SCF, residents in the neighborhoods, and others in the community. Residents decide what is to be done. . . . Developing neighborhood unity and neighborhood revitalization is what this is all about.”

Edmiston echoes Castor’s early angst.

“Getting neighbors to sign up to be helped is always the biggest challenge,” she says.

The neighborhood association has identified seven major projects, including the placement of a privacy fence, and about 20 minor projects for this Saturday. Some cleanup tasks cannot be tackled by the Sprucing Up Springfield volunteers. Nothing can be done on private property without the permission of the property owner.

The volunteers also aren’t sure they’ll be able to remove yard waste and other garbage; the coordinators are trying to address that problem.

“When something is put back right, it’s more apt that it will be maintained that way,” Edmiston says. “There was a study made where they purposely broke a window at an abandoned house, and soon other abandoned houses had broken windows. When they repaired a window, other windows were repaired.

“Decay is contagious. So is sprucing up.”

Job Conger is a former Vinegar Hill president.

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