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Volunteers to the Rescue

The City of Salisbury transformed two neglected blocks of South Shaver Street and is an honoree for the Make A Difference Day city awards.
Volunteers Help Out in Salisbury

Two volunteers in Salisbury, NC help rebuild an abandoned home on Make A Difference Day 2011.

Ed. note: The Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation is celebrating National Volunteer Week on April 15th– 21stto recognize individuals who serve their communities. This blog post introduces readers to Paul Woodson, Mayor of Salisbury, NC. The City of Salisbury transformed two neglected blocks of South Shaver Street and is an honoree for the Make A Difference Day city awards. When asked about the impact volunteering has had on communities, Mayor Woodson writes:

Like many Piedmont North Carolina communities, Salisbury was hit hard by closures of textile mills in the ‘90s followed by two deep recessions. The resulting decline in private-sector revenues dug a deep hole in public and non-profit budgets, causing the city government to struggle to provide the same services without a tax increase.

Founded in 1753, Salisbury is an older city with an aging housing stock. To compound the challenge, the housing crisis of 2008 left many homeowners stranded, either battling foreclosure or without disposable income to make needed repairs to their homes. This left a ripple of deterioration throughout many city neighborhoods.  

The Salisbury Community Appearance Commission (CAC), a City Council advisory board, spearheaded a partnership with the Council to develop a cohesive concept that would help foster accountability among residents and communities for cleaner, safer neighborhoods -- one block at a time. With Council support, the CAC implemented a unique initiative called BlockWork.

Neighbors Helping Neighbors

Make a Difference Day 2011 provided the opportunity for a pilot project. The annual day of service is sponsored by USA WEEKEND and supported by the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency for volunteering and service.

Before the big day, two adjacent blocks were selected from the applications. City staff and neighborhood leaders met with property owners to design work plans. On the event day, volunteer work crews were designated for each of the 14 sites. Property owners participated on work crews and contributed to the cost of materials as able.

The BlockWork event attracted 85 volunteers representing multiple neighborhoods and crossing all lines of age, income, and ethnicity. Throughout the day, these volunteers filtered into two neighboring blocks of South Shaver Street where they installed brick walkways, front steps, hand rails, and picket fences.  They planted trees and shrubs and painted buildings. 

It was a day of neighbors helping neighbors, working together to make a difference, that was fitting for the annual day of service. The effect of the one-day work event was breathtaking, but theresults of BlockWork far exceed the work accomplished in one day. 

With careful planning prior to the event, one abandoned house underwent extensive repairs and is once again a lovely historic home.  Another house, previously boarded up for 10 years, now has a buyer and plan for renovation. A long-time vacant house unsuited for renovation is slated for demolition.  And now, a once-fractured group of neighbors has reassembled on several occasions to discuss problems and solutions related to local drug activity and neighborhood traffic issues.

A New Community Model

We are thrilled that Salisbury, N.C. was chosen as a recipient of the Make A Difference Day City Awards, but are even more pleased to see the excitement about BlockWork is spreading to other communities. One neighborhood’s residents, whose application for the BlockWork program was not selected, independently held their own neighborhood improvement day and revitalized a dilapidated house.  

Another neighborhood came together to plant 80 street trees.  And many neighborhood leaders will attend a meeting in early May to prepare for submitting their applications for BlockWork 2012 – scheduled for October 27, Make a Difference Day.

BlockWork is a new community model for what can be accomplished when citizens come together to work for a common cause, and it is showing every sign of becoming infectious.

Jonathan Greenblatt is the Director of the White House Office of Social Innovation.