In 2015, opportunity rarely knocked on the doors in the public housing neighborhoods surrounding Highland Park High School.
Neighbors in name only, residents of Topeka Housing Authority’s Deer Creek Village, Echo Ridge and Pine Ridge Manor rarely interacted. Crushing poverty left little money or energy for anything but survival, and high crime rates kept residents inside and alone.
Four years earlier, a United Way-supported preschool had sparked a glimmer of hope in Pine Ridge. As the school grew from one classroom to two, the neighborhood began to transform with it. Parents of preschool children came to school activities together and spent more time on the Born Learning Trail on the playground and park behind the building.
The spark blossomed into plans for a wellness center to offer basic preventive care for the neighbors. Partners from across the community and the region joined the effort. Residents began to have faith in possibilities, and both THA and United Way saw that it was time to start putting residents in charge of their own healthier, happier and safer lives.
When the Kansas Health Foundation requested proposals for community engagement projects in 2014, the two partners worked together to create Neighborhood Opportunity for Wellness (NOW). Multi-year funding would allow the lessons learned from growing a neighborhood in Pine Ridge to expand to two additional THA properties. This time, resident engagement and participation would anchor the work.
With the help of the NOW Community Liaison, residents began to build solutions for the neighborhoods where nearly everyone earned less than $20,000 a year and more than three-fourths of the households had only one parent. Every initiative took into account barriers like access to transportation and need for child care during events. With help from the public library, Deer Creek created a computer lab that hosts job training and financial literacy classes, helping residents build skills and find better paying jobs. Echo Ridge’s community center became the hub for a cooking class, teaching healthy recipes on a budget and sending participants home with meals to share.
Grant funding for NOW ends in early 2018, but United Way donors will be at the forefront of the effort to sustain existing activities and expand this proven process to even more neighborhoods. Residents of the initial NOW communities will help guide new leaders through the process and set them on their own paths to success.