Rich Heldenfels

Old-timers remember when Grace Park was not somewhere for good people to gather. It was a location so sad and sordid that in 1999 a vandalized, 104-year-old statue of Col. Simon Perkins was moved from the park land — which he donated to the city and named in honor of his wife — to a seemingly friendlier, safer spot at the University of Akron.

But on Saturday afternoon, the park on Akron’s near east side was a far more pleasing place, a location where charity and assistance were available to local residents.

School supplies, clothes, produce and other items were handed out to folks around the park along Prospect, College, Park and, yes, Perkins streets.

Blue tote bags from Walmart were overflowing. Recorded and live music poured from speakers on the Gospel Wagon. The YMCA and Summit County Public Health had information booths. Akron City Council President Gary Moneypenny, one of several city officials on hand, spoke about the way he saw Akron making a comeback.

The picnic has long been about comebacks and recovery. The annual event began in 1999, shortly before the statue moved.

Area residents Ethel Chambers and Anne Lane Gates started it to restore pride and quality to the community, as well as to help local residents. Yolanda Parker, a pastor of the Open Door Assembly of God, stepped in three years ago in conjunction with the church members to keep it going

Support comes from United Way, Family of Faith United Methodist Church, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Family & Community Services, the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank and other operations.

The 2012 picnic served food to close to 1,000 people; Parker said that enough had been collected this year to feed 1,500.?And people were ready to eat. By early Saturday afternoon, more than 100 people — young and old, black and white — stood in the line for hot dogs, ribs and other edibles.

Besides the food, Parker said the household items donated truly help families.?“Many of them may have sheets on their windows,” she said. “They may get curtains, blankets, pillows — things they need in the home. In the clothing area we have clothing for all types of people, so anybody that goes over there can go away with an item.”

But it’s about more than food and goods.

“The whole purpose of the event is to bring unity to the community,” Parker said. “Many of the residents live beside each other, but they never speak to each other. In an environment like this, you can see that they have name tags on with their first names ... to get to know their neighbors.”

Still, the scene in the park seemed to contrast with the picture Moneypenny drew of an Akron showcasing new apartments for young professionals, a hotel and college student housing as part of a “vibrant downtown atmosphere.”

But Moneypenny said the improved local economy would also affect the poor people in Grace Park. More prosperous businesses would be more willing to support efforts like the picnic, he said. People who are doing well, he added, would be more ready to volunteer help to those still struggling.

Rich Heldenfels is a reporter for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.