Unionville students among volunteers who are helping grassroots group grow
By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times
On a typical school day, a passel of beaming elementary students file into the basement of the Bethel AME Church on East Linden Street for Study Buddies, an after-school program that represents one of the hallmarks of the Historic East Linden Project, a grassroots initiative that began more than a decade ago.
Since then, much has changed. A neighborhood plagued by drug-dealing, mistrust, and dilapidation has been replaced by well-tended yards, camaraderie, and a dramatic reduction in crime. To highlight the point, Kennett Square Police Chief Edward A. Zunino said three disorderly conducts occurred in 2013 – down from 53 in 2009.
The turnaround, started by lifelong resident Theresa Bass and Joan Holliday, a public nurse who worked in the neighborhood, required long hours, inexorable patience, and countless volunteers. Gradually, the group saw glimmers of progress.The Historic East Linden Project, Inc. eventually became a 501-c3 with Bass as president and Holliday serving for a time as a board member.
Now, more than 10 years after an odyssey to revitalize a diverse, low-income community, much has been accomplished but much work remains, Bass said. In some ways “the project was done,” she said. A crime-ridden, decrepit community gave way to a vibrant, welcoming one. However, maintaining and expanding those improvements set the stage for reorganization, she said.
After several years of discussion and planning, Historic East Linden Street has become the Joseph and Sarah Carter Community Development Corporation (CDC). LaToya M. Myers, Bass’s daughter and the organization’s executive director, said the decision to become a CDC made sense. “We’re really a quality-of-life organization,” she said.
Discussion about an appropriate name proved more challenging, Myers said. In the end, the new moniker pays tribute to the Carters, who arrived in Kennett Square on the Underground Railroad with nothing and became one of the area’s most prominent families.
Bass says through word of mouth, the group has expanded its geographic reach as well. She said neighbors “invite their friends” and suddenly programs are attracting people from more than half a dozen other municipalities. “We’re not going to turn people away,” she adds.
To appreciate the value of a program like Study Buddies, which serves up to 50 students a week, one only needs to talk to the grateful participants. Aalana Vasquez, 11, has been coming since first grade – whether she has homework or not. “I like being here with all my friends,” she explains, echoing the sentiments of her companions. “I just really like the whole program.”
The students say they enjoy the routine and the comfortable atmosphere. Plus, they can get homework help from more than half a dozen volunteers. Kennett Square Police Officer Jennifer Albertson is a regular, and a rotating crew of high school students also volunteer. The program’s participants also have access to a computer lab, snacks, and dinner.
This is Vasquez’s last year in the elementary-school program, an acknowledgement that generates a frown. She says she will probably return as a helper for the younger kids next year. Myers says she would like to provide a similar program for middle-school students, another reason to work toward growing the organization.
Besides Study Buddies, a Basic Needs program ensures that children have bookbags, books, and clothing. A summer Meal Program provides a safety net when school isn’t in session by providing young people with lunch five days each week. Last year, 4,620 meals were served. Annual initiatives include a Health Fair, a Community Gala Brunch, a National Night Out observance with the Kennett Square Police Department, and a Block Party.
Ethan Cramer, a board member, says the success of some programs gives rise to the need for others. He says the organization has learned what works and he would like it to serve as a model for other communities while expanding its own services. “There’s so much more that we can do,” he says, adding that the neighborhood’s gains benefit the wider community. “We are the history of Kennett Square. We are what makes Kennett Square a rich place in so many ways.”
Cramer says he can recall a time when he would go door-to-door to try and get residents to come to events only to be met with suspicion and disdain. Now, he says not only is he welcomed but also events are much better attended. For example, more than 300 people turned out for last year’s Block Party.
“We do a lot with a little,” Cramer said. “But we need to do more. We still have at-risk children so we can’t let up. We need a middle-school program; consistency is very important.”
He says he hopes the organization’s status as a CDC will open the door to new funding sources. “We’ve transformed a neighborhood,” he says. “But we need to make sure that these are lasting changes. We don’t want some of these children to end up struggling 10 years from now.”
Cramer believes that approaching the problems from the inside and getting residents to invest in the process has fueled the project’s success, and he feels that approach could benefit other venues. “We know what works; we just need the resources to make it happen,” he said.
This year’s annual Community Gala Brunch on June 7 at 10:30 a.m. will celebrate a decade of success as well as a new beginning. Tickets are on sale for an event that will “declare the ‘project’ over after having pulled the Historic East Linden Neighborhood out of a tailspin,” organizers say.
Tickets are $50 apiece, which actually buys two: one for the purchaser and one for one of the residents – to facilitate coming together as a community of neighbors and supporters. To purchase tickets, email Cramer at firstname.lastname@example.org, call 302-293-1854, or mail a $50 check payable to Carter CDC to Carter CDC, P.O. Box 39, Kennett Square, 19348.