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Building community at housing complex step by step

New Hampshire Union Leader

September 18. 2011 11:32PM
Sarah Jane Knoy, far left, and William Miles discuss possible improvements to the area with residents Chris Ouellette and Katie Dame and their children, Cameron Dame-Ouellette, 2, and Kenney Dame-Ouellette, 1, as they walk through the Elmwood Gardens area of Manchester. Knoy and Miles were participating in the 'positive loitering' program on September 14th. (BRUCE PRESTON/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER - When dusk starts to settle on the Elmwood Gardens on Wednesdays and Fridays, Sophia Burma appears on the edges of the housing project's basketball court.

A friendly, soft-spoken mother of two, the Liberian native is joined by Nyanit Malual, a southern Sudanese woman with a stroller in tow; Sarah Jane Knoy, the director of Granite State Organizing Project; and Willie (Mr. Willie) Miles, a Texas transplant deemed the mayor of Elmwood Gardens.

They exchange a few pleasantries, and then start to walk.

They take a little more than an hour, ushering in the darkness and making sure that all is well at the 250-unit project for low-income families in south Manchester.

They ask motorists to be careful of children and to slow down. They fantasize over converting an overgrown lot, owned by Velcro, into a community garden.

They tell children to get home once the 9 p.m. curfew goes into effect.

'I think I'm responsible for everybody's child,' Burma said. 'We're all here. We're supposed to be walking as a family. Her child is my child because we're all moms.'

The patrols are an offshoot of the Elmwood Gardens Leadership Group, which formed about a year ago, thanks in part to a $15,000 Bean Foundation grant designed to improve English and community involvement in the neighborhood.

'Before, it was just English classes and you go home,' Malual said. 'But we need to know what the American people are doing.'

She joined a leadership class, and part of it involved recruiting neighbors to a residents meeting. Residents said they were concerned about the safety of children, parking and maintenance.

'It's community building. It's relationship building,' said Knoy, whose Granite State Organizing Project provides support.

The sense of ownership is evident in other efforts.

Budget cuts have forced the elimination of the Even Start family-oriented literacy project, so the tenants group is trying to replace it with volunteers from nearby Blessed Sacrament Church.

And later this year, a sewing class likely will start.

As for now, the patrols continue.

The walk draws the attention of grade school-aged African girls, several wearing head scarves. They banter with Miles, who compliments some and jokingly chides others.

'There's a lot of great people here, but they don't understand (America),' said Miles, a 61-year-old who has suffered through a stroke and two heart attacks. 'They hear 'Land of the Free,' and they think everything's free.

'They get turned loose on us, and that's what we're about. We're teaching them about America,' he said.

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