RNeighbors, a Rochester nonprofit created in 2001, has impacted many neighborhoods in Rochester in the past 16 years. Rene Lafflam, executive director of RNeighbors since 2006, says, “We’re about engagement and getting neighbors to interact with neighbors and with the city departments.”
Lafflam continues, “My end goal is to bring neighbors together.” In many neighborhoods throughout Rochester, RNeighbors has accomplished that.
PROJECTS THROUGHOUT THE CITY
RNeighbors has been involved in several programs throughout the city, including tree planting (RNeighborWoods) and creative crosswalks. You might have stepped across painted crosswalks or seen the trees planted in town.
Last year, RNeighbors was involved in projects in Homestead Trails, Cimarron and Indian Heights neighborhoods. Homestead Trails and Cimarron were among the neighborhoods granted project grants by the city last year.
The city provides up to $6,000 total each year for neighborhood project grants, which includes up to $1,000 per project grant, Lafflam explains. Neighborhoods decide how they’ll use the grant to both improve the neighborhood and bring people together.
Volunteers are a vital part of the program, both by drafting project grants and putting in the hours to complete the projects. Lafflam noted about 40 hours or more of volunteer hours are put into each project grant, and volunteer time equaled around 440 hours total for last year’s grants. Last year, seven grants were given to eight neighborhoods.
HOMESTEAD TRAILS AND NEARBY NEIGHBORHOODS
Homestead Trails was one of the neighborhoods given a project grant last year. Lafflam says, “They have a neighborhood garden, and they have a harvest festival. They have added rain barrels, trees and plants around the garden. They’ve really worked hard to bring a sense of community to this part of the city.”
April Sutor, a resident of Homestead Trails, explains, “Our neighborhood association is very small, under 60 homes. We organized around creation of a neighborhood garden to create a place for people to raise their own vegetables and get out in the neighborhood and meet more people.”
Sutor says there are 10 spots in the garden, and some households share a spot. They share what they grow in the garden too. “When stuff starts coming, and there’s too much, we share with neighbors. We also take some to Channel One and Salvation Army.”
Lafflam says, “Because of the synergy with the garden, they put up a bench and added one of those little libraries. Little tiny things make a difference in a neighborhood. Sometimes people just want a place to gather around, and then they’ll talk to each other.”
Sutor notes, “People have gotten to know each other and built community. Everyone pitches in and participates how and when they can. Everyone cares for each other.” She says the neighborhood has a spring dinner and a harvest dinner in the fall, and many people gather to watch the fireworks together for the Fourth of July.
In nearby Homestead Addition, a bench was added in a “pocket park” in the neighborhood as part of a project grant last year. Lafflam tells a story about when the bench was first unveiled in the grand opening. “They had the oldest resident and the youngest resident (around 6 months old) in the neighborhood both sit on the bench, and they took photos.”
Lafflam also shares about when they were getting ready to install the bench in the park in Homestead Addition near Olmsted Medical Center (OMC). “There was a wall between the park and Olmsted Medical Center, and many years ago barbed wire had been put at the top. The neighborhood asked OMC if the barbed wire could go away. OMC granted permission. A group of neighbors took it all down and hauled a truckload of barbed wire to the dump.”
In Cimarron neighborhood, there is a neighborhood garden. “Each plot has an enclosure and a gate built by garden caretaker Hank Klein,” describes Lafflam.
“Last year, they wrote their grant for an octagonal picnic table, which sounds easy enough, but when neighbors add things to their park or garden, it has to all be done up to city standards,” explains Lafflam. This table is a place where neighbors interact within their community garden.
In Indian Heights, Lafflam says, “They organized as an association as they wanted to preserve their park.” There are several other neighborhood associations that have formed in neighborhoods in Rochester.
Indian Heights received the Conservation Partners Legacy Grant from the DNR for restoration work to remove invasive species, including buckthorn and garlic mustard. “I believe, due to the work they’ve been doing there, a few (rare) species and plants are reappearing,” says Lafflam. Lafflam notes the Nodding Ladies’ Tresses orchids have appeared in Indian Heights, and this is the first recorded instance of them in Olmsted County.
The grant total was $51,300 for the three-year project. Last year, volunteer time equaled about 772 hours. In addition, the Conservation Corps has done much of the work in Indian Heights, including working about 1,940 hours in 2016. The grant is currently in its second year.
RNeighbors “provides tools to grow great neighborhoods.” To learn more about RNeighbors, the neighborhood project grants and the neighborhood toolkit, check out the website at rneighbors.org.
Alison Rentschler is a writer and editor living in Rochester.