Volunteers keep Block Party going in East Sanford

Apr. 14, 2013 @ 05:03 AM

Filling in driveway potholes, painting walls planting shrubs, raking leaves and picking up trash, about 100 people came to Maple Avenue to spruce up the neighborhood Saturday morning.

The target of the third annual East Sanford Block Party had already seen some revitalization recently — a federal grant of nearly $1 million was used to build a new park, install curbs and sidewalks and improve several homes — and the block party took care of most of the rest of the street. Even a boarding house, and at least one home with its windows and doors boarded up, had some work done.

However, almost none of the people working on the houses on the street, which runs between Chatham Street and Bragg Street, live in the neighborhood. Organizers said that's part of the beauty of this project, but also part of the reason why the area needed to be cleaned up in the first place. The hope is the annual Block Party will change the attitudes prevalent in some of Sanford's neighborhoods that lead them to become so blighted, a word multiple people used Saturday to describe Maple Avenue and the areas nearby.

"We'd really love to see the renters and property owners take more ownership of the houses and the yards," Karen Kennedy, the city of Sanford's community development manager, said. She said most people on the street rent, and if a house is beat up when they move in, they might feel like there's no reason to try to make it look any better by the time they leave.

"Whether you rent or you own, it's your responsibility to keep it up," she said. "And it's really not that hard if you keep it going. ... This is just to show them that it is important, and it is possible."

Although Kennedy and several other city staffers and politicians were on hand either doing physical work or helping coordinate efforts, the entire project was funded through donations and organized by the three Rotary clubs in Sanford. John Ramsperger of the Jonesboro Rotary Club was the project coordinator, and he said it was good to see so many people and groups join forces to help out.

"I've been around a while and I'm always dealing with political things," he said. "But today, there was no politics. I saw both (Republican County Commissioner) Jim Womack and (Democratic City Council Member) Rebecca Wyhof out here. This has nothing to do with that. This is just church groups, community groups and civic groups coming together."

Ramsperger said he was also glad to see a handful of the residents out and about, whether they helped work or just came for the free food, music and games at First Congregational Christian Church, which served as home base for the event. That kind of participation is an improvement from the last two years, Ramsperger said, when everyone was withdrawn and suspicious of the army of volunteers that swooped in when the group tackled McIver Street and Charlotte Avenue.

Sanford Mayor Cornelia Olive, whose housing task force is behind many revitalization efforts in town, said she was also glad to see residents mingling with volunteers, and that she hopes the Block Party continues well into the future.

"It's a great way to give back but also to get this community more involved," she said.

Ramsperger, a real estate agent who's also on Olive's housing task force, said the outward appearance of a house — and the houses around it — is a big deal. Simply having well-kept lawns and houses without chipped, fading paint can go a long way toward instilling neighborhood pride and civic pride, he said. And those feelings can be contagious.

"We intentionally did it on these streets," he said in reference to Charlotte, McIver and Maple, which are parallel with each other. "What we hoped would happen, and what did happen, was 'keeping up with the Joneses.' The people on the side streets see that the houses around the corner suddenly look much nicer, so they do some work on theirs, too."

The sense of responsibility and civic engagement the organizers are trying to instill on the East Sanford residents aren't lost on the volunteers, either — volunteers like the Girl Scouts from Sanford troops 1050 and 676.

"It's very important, so when the girls get older they know they can help out the community," Jennifer Coggins, co-leader of Troop 1050, said while watching a backhoe being used to dig out a rug that had been left on the ground so long that roots had grown over it. "... This gives them a sense of leadership. A sense of responsibility."