These days, when Jack Gover and his three-legged dog, Hope, visit Davenport Park, they don’t spot the litter they used to see.
“I just came from [the park],” Gover said in a recent interview. “There was like nothing to pick up.”
Gover can’t say the same for the Hyre Park trail area behind Hyre Middle School.
Despite several cleanups in the forested park behind the school on Wedgewood Drive, Gover said debris remains, with some of it packed down and difficult to remove. When a pond in the forest recedes, he said, layers of trash are exposed.
“It upsets me,” said Gover, an ardent Akron volunteer who, along with his trusty canine sidekick, has adopted the cleanup of parks as a personal mission. “This is a city park. The community center and middle school are right there. Yet, there is no plan or maintenance.”
Gover, who along with other Akron volunteers helped spur a citywide effort called My Neighborhood Our Akron, is feeling a combination of pride and frustration as the first year of the program draws to a close. He says the effort has shown positive results, like improvements to Davenport Park and bringing people together from different groups. But, he also thinks the program hasn’t always followed through on all of its plans nor done enough to encourage recycling.
“I feel like I’ve given so much of my life,” he said on a rainy afternoon as he and Hope finished a walk through Hyre Park. “I feel like I’ve made a difference. At [other] points, I feel like I’ve hit a brick wall.”
When organizers started My Neighborhood Our Akron in April, they knew they faced challenges. They were trying to bring together people from many groups who had different ideas about what should be done and when, and they were doing it with no budget.
Despite continued challenges, many of the city and school officials, council members, community leaders and volunteers involved in the program say the fledgling effort has achieved positive results in its inaugural year. They are looking for even better outcomes in 2014, with a new focus and — possibly – even a budget.
“We can’t conquer the world in the first year,” said John Valle, Akron’s director of neighborhood assistance who has led the effort. He says it must take “baby steps” forward.
A new focus
The original intent of My Neighborhood Our Akron was to better coordinate the cleanup efforts that various groups and volunteers were making across the city.
The idea was modeled after a successful project in Evansville, Ind., that resulted in 20,000 pounds of trash being collected over a yearlong period.
But, though Akron’s effort still involves a cleanup component, its focus has changed to an attempt to tackle other types of small projects in the community, such as landscaping, rebuilding steps, spreading mulch and wood chips, clearing brush, painting and pulling weeds.
“I figured once a month we would pick up trash,” Valle said. “We didn’t do that.”
Valle said the new mission crystallized in mid-September, when a collection of volunteers came together at Forest Lodge Park in West Akron: the city, Boy Scout Troop 96, City Council members, Keep Akron Beautiful, Knights of Columbus, St. Sebastian Church, West Akron Block Watches and the West Akron Baseball League. They put in a brick patio, mulched and spread wood chips throughout the park.
Karen Hague, who works with Valle in neighborhood assistance, recalls surveying the hodgepodge of volunteers that day and getting teary-eyed.
“I know that will be the single-most project that will distinguish this from going out and cleaning up parks,” Valle said. “We need to do more things like that.”
Such projects, organizers say, will produce a more lasting impact than picking up trash while also achieving the group’s original goals of bringing together different groups to improve the city and creating a stronger sense of community.
Paula Davis, who heads up Keep Akron Beautiful, is excited about My Neighborhood Our Akron’s new focus, especially because she was concerned about the future sustainability of the effort’s original idea, which treaded close to the purpose of her organization.
“I think they have found some niches and holes that we had in delivering services to citizens and neighborhood groups,” Davis said. “That just takes time. You go in for one thing, spend a year in the trenches and come out with something different.”
Davis said Keep Akron Beautiful is happy to continue supporting the My Neighborhood Our Akron effort.
“I just think it is finding its fit,” she said.
In its first year, My Neighborhood Our Akron relied on volunteers, community groups and local companies to donate supplies.
Donnie Kammer and Marilyn Keith, who are among the Akron City Council members active in the effort, are pushing for $10,000 in the city’s operating budget for the program next year.
Valle said such funding would allow the group to buy some basic supplies and tools, including gloves, water and signs to let the community know what the group is doing, when, where and how to get involved.
Sally Nyburg, with neighborhood assistance, plans to apply for a Neighborhood Partnership grant, which the city provides to groups who are able to match the amount with their own funds or volunteer hours. My Neighborhood Our Akron would provide its match through hours.
Valle said the effort in its first year was able to touch just about every area of the city. He said Goodyear Heights was one neighborhood that was missed, and that will be a focus for next year.
Projects on the horizon include: building a pavilion, mulching and painting at Canyon Trail park in West Akron; installing a playground at Suddieth Park in North Hill, ideally with the help of a grant; and a “Big Day of Serving” on April 5 that would target multiple projects around the city with the help of volunteers from Connection Church in Medina. The church provided volunteers for an Oct. 5 blitz of 16 projects across Akron.
An executive committee, made up of the groups involved in My Neighborhood Our Akron, will meet this month and in January to prepare for when the larger umbrella group reconvenes in February. The next round of projects will begin in March or April, depending on the weather.
As for Gover, he said he hasn’t decided if he wants to continue to be involved in My Neighborhood Our Akron. Regardless, he said, he and Hope won’t stop their efforts to clean the parks they’ve adopted.
“It’s frustrating, but I feel like we’ve made a difference anyhow,” he said. “When you target an area, you can’t just leave. You have to keep going back.”
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @swarsmith.