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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)

Building community at housing complex step by step

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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