Project improves lives of city residents

ROCHESTER — Wanda Martínez has lived on Treyer Street for more than three decades. During those years, as drug activity boomed around them and drive-by shootings became commonplace, she has seen residents grow increasingly distrustful of each other and fearful of being outdoors.

But in the last couple of years, the neighborhood has seen a major transformation, thanks in large part to Project HOPE, she said.

"We’ve seen dramatic changes," Martínez remarked. "People wanted to make a difference (before), but were afraid."

Project HOPE grew from a proposal by Ibero-American Development Corp. (IADC) to improve the lives of residents living in the northeast area of Rochester by focusing on health. In 2008, the agency became one of four grantees of the Greater Rochester Health Foundation’s Neighborhood Health Status Improvement initiative, which funds grassroots efforts to improve the social, physical and economic conditions of neighborhoods, according to Bonnie DeVinny, the foundation’s vice president and chief program officer.

GRHF most recently awarded the project a three-year $555,000 grant, added DeVinny, which will be used to continue implementation of plans to achieve safer and cleaner streets, additional public gardens — including a sofrito garden — and safe places for children to play, said Miguel Meléndez, Project HOPE’s coordinator.

The efforts by Project HOPE staff and residents have taken root, said Martínez. Many drug dealers have left the area, new neighborhood groups have formed, vacant lots have been turned into community gardens, parishioners from St. Michael Church marched with neighbors against drugs and residents helped build a playground. On March 21, a youth drop-in center will open its doors in the St. Michael Church hall.

The center will offer programs for children ages 9 to 12 and pay stipends to older youths who will help staff the center, explained Meléndez. The Puerto Rican Youth Development and Resource Center, an affiliate of Ibero, will manage the center, which was born out of conversations with residents and parishioners, indicating that kids need somewhere to go, he added. Community surveys also supported the idea, Meléndez said.

"We’re hoping the drop-in center takes youths off the streets and gives them somewhere else to go," he noted. Giving teenagers "responsibilities will also develop their leadership abilities."

IADC took the lead in a request for proposals from the health foundation three years ago, Meléndez said. The IADCworked in collaboration with Ibero-American Action League, Puerto Rican Youth Development and Resource Center, Clinton Avenue Business Association, the Enterprise Foundation, Clinton Family Health Center and Los Flamboyanes to create Project HOPE, explained Meléndez. An initial $65,000 grant to conduct an assessment of the area was followed by an additional $85,000 the following year to develop plans based on those assessments, DeVinny said by e-mail.

"The Ibero-American Development Corp. was one of the agencies that recognized that when communities organize around their assets, rather than their needs, improvements occur," she added. "The youth drop-in center is just a small part of the work of Project HOPE to create a neighborhood that supports a healthy lifestyle for children, youth, and adults."

The church has been a "tremendous partner" in making the youth center a reality, DeVinny noted.

"We’re very excited (for Ibero)," said Deb Housel, copastoral administrator for St. Francis Xavier Cabrini Parish, of which St. Michael’s is a part. The diocese approved use of the hall for the center at the end of February.

The center also fits in with the newly formed parish’s commitment to providing outreach ministry in the city, she added.

"This (center) gives presence to the … area and gives presence to our youth," Housel said.

Youth development is one of Project HOPE’s four areas of focus. Other focus areas are drugs and alcohol abuse prevention, personal lifestyle changes and public safety, Meléndez said.

Public safety has played a major role in transforming the Project HOPE target area, which borders Avenue A, Scrantom, Hawkins and Oakman streets and North Clinton Avenue, he said.

"The health foundation is looking at how neighbors can address their health needs so they can become engaged and active," Meléndez added. "But how are you going to be healthy if you can’t even walk your dog?"

Staff and volunteers have worked diligently on fostering better relationships between police officers and residents, especially youths, during block parties, street cleanups and neighborhood group meetings, he added. A group of residents even took a recent citizen training course with the Rochester Police Department, Martínez said.

"The synergy between different organizations; all these things have a foundation for something great," observed José Cruz, chief operations officer with Ibero-American Action League.

Ibero has a vested interest in the success of the project because the neighborhood is home to the IADC’s Buena Vista senior housing project and El Camino, a single-family housing development, explained Meléndez. El Camino also includes a trail, in partnership with the Genesee Land Trust, to connect the neighborhood to Seneca Park Zoo, he added.

Adding safe walking trails and gardens "creates opportunities to be healthy … and improve access to healthy food," Meléndez noted. "Plus, knowing the people on your street makes a big difference."

Project HOPE’s efforts, the new housing and the support from the city’s Neighborhood Empowerment Team’s office on Norton Avenue have created a new energy in those neighborhoods, Cruz noted.

"You put all this into a nice sancocho and you’re seeing a lot of positive things," he added. "There’s resident empowerment going on, and neighborhood pride is growing."

Meléndez said that the key to HOPE’s success thus far has been the personal contact of going door to door to meet people and recruit the assistance of neighbors such as Martínez, who in turn have hosted meetings in their own homes.

"Ultimately, it’s not folks coming in (to a neighborhood) that will make the ultimate changes … but folks living there taking on the responsibility," Cruz remarked.

"Everyone made a commitment to stand our ground … and take our street back," Martínez added. "The commitment of residents and teams of residents who want to make a difference is the biggest achievement Project HOPE has had."

EDITOR’S NOTE: Early registration for the Project HOPE youth center will take place March 17 and 18 from 3 to 6 p.m. at St. Michael Church hall, 869 N. Clinton Ave. For more information, call 585-467-6410.

Copyright © 2024 Rochester Catholic Press Association, Inc. All rights reserved. Linking is encouraged, but republishing or redistributing, including by framing or similar means, without the publisher's prior written permission is prohibited.

No, Thanks