Residents say MyHometown Initiative boosts quality of life

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Volunteers provide face painting, balloon art, carnival games, food and musical entertainment at the Pioneer Park community celebration. The celebration was organized by the MyHometown Provo Initiative. (Lynnette McConkie)

MyHometown Provo Initative is changing the lives of residents through education, service and community gatherings.

At the organization’s end-of-summer community celebration at Franklin Park, the atmosphere is festive — full of music, food, laughter and conversation. Luz Ramirez smiles as some of her children run around the playground and her oldest child chats with a friend. Ramirez, native to Honduras, moved to the neighborhood six years ago.

“I am grateful for the opportunities this gives my family,” Ramirez said.

The MyHometown Initiative was first created in West Valley City more than three years ago. The combined efforts of neighborhood volunteers, resources from the city and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints produced a quick upturn to the quality of life in West Valley City’s focus neighborhood.

Provo City saw this success and decided to bring the initiative to certain Provo neighborhoods. MyHometown Provo was established to “build community friendships, improve neighborhood housing and provide educational opportunities which allow families to advance and prosper,” as stated on the Pioneer Park information flyer.

The initiative includes monthly service days, community gatherings and free classes for residents. Pioneer Park was the first focus area. Greg Baum, executive director of the Pioneer Park Community Resource Center, said positive results came in quickly, so the program expanded with a second focus area — the South Freedom neighborhood.

Sarah Sun, reigning Miss Utah, poses for a photo with David Avalos and his daughter after she shares her crown with a young student at the community celebration. Sun, one of the 36 piano teachers at the Pioneer Park CRC, enjoys any chance she has to help families in the community. (Lynnette McConkie)

“An effort of this magnitude would not be possible without partners,” Provo mayor Michelle Kaufusi said. The city provides resources and leadership while partnering with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for critical “funding, service and project volunteers, and use of their buildings for classes.”

Residents of the community itself are the “final critical piece,” according to Mayor Kaufusi. Longitudinal success of the initiative is dependent upon residents investing themselves in these resources by “engag(ing) in service projects, classes and events to unite their neighborhoods with the shared goal of neighborhood improvement.”

Two years ago, Baum was selected by Church leaders to work closely with and under the direction of Mayor Kaufusi.

“The goal was to create a sense of community pride, helping neighbors take care of each other,” Baum said.

Neighbors helping neighbors

When the initiative started, many of the volunteers lived outside the community. More center directors, however, said they are seeing a groundswell of capable and willing neighbors. Alan Wilkins, executive director of the South Freedom MyHometown, said this is an important transition in the work.

“Bringing lots of boots on the ground from other places in the community can contribute to the people feeling like they cannot help each other,” Wilkins said. “We want people to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, we can pull each other up.’”

Scott Zimmerman is co-director of the South Freedom CRC with his wife Beverly. He concurred having more resident volunteers creates “a sense of community, a sense of belonging and helps build leadership within the community.”

On Linda Roberts’ first MyHometown day of service at the Parkway Trail, she got a “little nervous” at all the work that needed to be done. Provo City had trimmed the trees and bushes back with large equipment, but there were a lot of branches to move out.

“Then, we looked up and 300 BYU students walked up and got to work,” she said.

Roberts and her husband started MyHometown volunteer work one year ago. Since then, she has been “impressed that there are so many young married couples and young adult students who want to serve.”

Katie Sly and her husband, a young married couple, volunteer in the nursery and teach computer skills once a week. She and her husband were invited to help out at their area CRC a few months before they felt they could. Sly does not speak a foreign language but loves serving in the nursery while parents take classes.

“I wish I had signed up sooner,” Sly said.

A volunteer assists a student with his computer at a weekly evening class. Volunteers and students said they are grateful for the opportunity to help each other. (Lynette McConkie)

Education opens opportunities

Free classes at the Pioneer Park CRC and the South Freedom CRC are taught by volunteers. Beginning and intermediate English classes are the most popular classes offered. Basic computer skills, personal wellness, financial literacy, American Sign Language, beginning Spanish, youth piano lessons, parenting workshops and pre-school are also highly attended.

“Pioneer Park night classes are at capacity,” Baum said. “These are hardworking, industrious and humble people. They are just good, good folk.” 

Both centers also offer young students free after-school tutoring from volunteer homework helpers. 

Responses from those who take the classes have been overwhelmingly positive. Ramirez just began the financial literacy class and expressed excitement to improve her family’s situation. “I just can’t wait to learn,” she said.

Students who enroll in and complete the computer skills class receive a laptop donated by a local organization. Community volunteers lead the classes. (Lynnette McConkie)

Grace Bermudez said she was thrilled to learn computer skills.

“I feel very happy with this opportunity because I don’t know much about computers,” Bermudez said. She is looking forward to using the skills she learns to do family history research.

There are currently 99 piano students and 45 piano teachers between the two centers. The lessons are well attended, and both centers currently have waitlists to sign up for lessons.

Camilla Rodriguez has two children who are in their third semester of lessons.

“I’m so grateful for the opportunity my children have to learn an instrument,” Rodriguez said. “The teachers are so kind. They teach with patience and love.”

Patricia Harmon, who recently moved to Provo from Peru, said her daughter is excited to learn piano.

A young student who recently moved to Provo from Peru learns to play the piano. Volunteers and students said they enjoy working together. (Lynnette McConkie)

“We would not be able to provide this for our daughter,” said Harmon. “She runs home from school every day just to practice.”

A foundation on which to build

Another important way MyHometown Provo is helping the community succeed is through a tight relationship with the neighborhood elementary school. 

Franklin Elementary is a Title 1 school. The 2022-2023 National Center for Education Statistics’ report records more than 65% of the student body as minorities. According to Baum, that number is now around 70%, with 45% being English learners. The Provo City School District’s school summary shows more than 10% of Franklin students were, or at some points were, homeless in the same school year. 

MyHometown Provo is helping students and parents face these challenges. Funding was arranged to bring Franklin Covey’s “Leader in Me” program to the school. As posted on the Franklin Covey webpage, the “Leader in Me” program aims to “build leadership in students, create a high-trust culture and improve academic achievement.”

Learning Tree preschool classes are taught in the mornings at the Pioneer Park CRC. Parents attend free parenting classes while their preschool children learn. 

After-school tutoring at both community resource centers helps students understand what they are learning and succeed academically. 

MyHometown Provo seeing unity in community

Tara Riddle, Provo City liason for MyHometown, has worked for the city for more than three decades.

“I have been with the city for 32 years, and this has been the highlight,” Riddle said, delighted with the difference the initiative is making.

“We’ve seen a tremendous transformation in our two pilot areas, including a reduction in zoning violations of nuisance properties, an increase in neighborhood camaraderie and increased educational opportunities for those who need it most,” Mayor Kaufusi said.

City leaders, CRC directors and neighbors have noticed how the increased level of cohesiveness is producing a safer community and better quality of life.

“We have had a number of people who have come to help within the community, sharing opportunities,” Wilkins said. “We have been looking out for each other, connecting with each other … celebrating together.”

At Franklin Park for the end-of-summer celebration, two women who just met are enjoying the music of a Mexican mariachi band and conversation. Ilca Bonilla from Guatemala and Gissella Rodriguez of Honduras say the MyHometown Provo event brought them to the park and they have become fast friends.

To learn more about the MyHometown Initiative in Provo or sign up to volunteer, visit this link.

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