The Oak Hill Jackson Neighborhood Association was established more than 20 years ago in an effort to build cohesive community in the historic southeast-side Cedar Rapids neighborhood. Throughout the years, the Neighborhood Association has worked to meet the fluctuating needs of residents. While past activities included chili suppers, and Thanksgiving turkey giveaways, these days the Neighborhood Association tries to tackle the larger issues that impact residents, like transportation barriers, hunger issues, youth engagement and beautification needs.
It was in the wake of the 2008 flood, which devastated the neighborhood, that Lynette Richards, a longtime Oak Hill Jackson resident and active Neighborhood Association member, recognized the changing needs of the community. She explains, “There were just so many more needs that had to be addressed by someone. And the Neighborhood Association was at the level where there were trusting relationships where people were willing to tell you what they needed.” In response, the Neighborhood Association started a targeted effort to rebuild their neighborhood and provide support to residents.
A significant part of the rebuilding effort was focused on connecting residents with resources. Today, because of development in the Newbo area, there are new opportunities to do that. “There’s a great deal of poverty,” explains Lynette, “but there’s also a great deal of wealth in the neighborhood. So one challenge is how we can connect people who have resources and want to help with people who are terrific neighbors, but also could use some support.”
To better facilitate making those connections, the Neighborhood Association established a physical resource center, hired a resource center coordinator and began implementing programming with funding from organizations like the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation.
Much of the success of these new programs has been due to the resource center’s staff member, Dawn Stephens. Dawn grew up in the Oak Hill Jackson neighborhood, and spends her time at the Resource Center, located in the basement of Saint Wenceslaus Catholic Church, connecting residents with the information and resources that they need. The requests she receives vary significantly. Some days, she’s organizing a litter walk. On other days, she’s helping a neighbor figure out how to make their home more energy efficient.
As flood-related needs waned, Dawn actively sought feedback from residents about the most pressing community concerns and opportunities. “I decided to take to the streets,” she explains, “and so I asked the board for approval to just go knock on the doors and say, hey did you know that you have a neighborhood association and a person who is here just to help you? It literally opened doors in a number of ways – just to have people identify with the Neighborhood Association.”
As the organization worked to meet community needs, they recognized that there was an opportunity to focus on youth programming. “The kids in the neighborhood really needed to come first,” explains Lynette, “and so we focused on meals for kids, activities for kids, and clean up in the neighborhood.”
Today the resource center occupies two rooms. In one, glitter, paint, craft supplies and board games fill shelves, while walls are covered in streamers and feathered boas. In the other an office desk shares space with a partially dissembled piano, an art project, we’re told. Young people from the Oak Hill Jackson neighborhood gather regularly for various youth programming including regular movie nights and litter walks.
Dawn finds this work to be the most important need that the Neighborhood Association’s resource center can meet. “Youth need to be reached, interacted with, made to feel important, and understand that they’re part of a community,” she says.