Rebecca Reynolds, Executive Director
Little Dixie Community Action Agency, Inc.
: The local public park in Hugo, Oklahoma, had deteriorated over the years and "family outings" to the site were a thing of the past; its purpose now being a "hangout" for alcohol or drug use and other behaviors that repelled social activities. Most residents simply avoided the area.
In 2012, Little Dixie Community Action Agency was awarded a grant from the Substance and Mental Health Services Administration to implement a Drug-Free Communities (DFC) program in Choctaw County. Our service area ranked among the highest in the state for drug and alcohol abuse by young people (grades 6 through 12). The primary goal of the DFC program is to raise awareness about the prevalence and dangers of alcohol and drug abuse and to implement strategies to fight it.
Our DFC program director, Michele Frazier, engages area youth in activities that educate them, their peers, parents, teachers and the community as a whole in a fun, interesting and engaging way. She works to "redirect" youth to more productive activities, which in a very rural area such as Hugo is a challenge. Other than school sports and summer leagues, there is little in terms of recreation for area youth—no skating rinks, movie theaters or rec centers.
Many of the participants also are members of one or more local youth groups. Michele spearheaded an effort to bring them together into a coalition, recognizing they could be more effective if they worked together. Thus, YouCo!—the first youth-led coalition in Choctaw County—was founded. The participants visited city council meetings, civic luncheons and community-based organizations to learn how a community operates and identify the various "players." They discovered they loved the discipline of "community engagement" and realized the community they lived in was theirs as well.
To introduce their newly formed coalition to other residents, the members decided to take on a project that was sure to get noticed and positively impact the overall community. That project was named "Take Back Ansley Park." It is the only park available, situated just at the edge of town and featured tennis courts, playground equipment (although old) and a skateboard area. In its heyday, Ansley Park offered recreation and enjoyment for residents and visitors and was frequently used for community-wide events. On any given weekend, one would find families enjoying a picnic or birthday party, and children playing on the merry-go-round or climbing the bigger-than-life, spider-shaped monkey bars. Unfortunately, over time, a slow but steady transformation occurred and the park became more associated with anti-social activity. Other than being mowed by city officials, it was not maintained. A visit to the park would most likely reveal a tableau of empty alcohol containers, crack cocaine vials, needles, cigarette butts. Broken glass and trash.
Members of YouCo put together a detailed "plan of action," which they presented to the city council. Their presentation was quite elaborate and included visual aids, such as a collage of photos of the park showing beer cans strewn about, graffiti on the benches and picnic shelters, broken playground equipment and even used syringes on the grounds. They informed the council of their plans to repair, renovate and "reclaim" the park and requested its approval to move forward. The proposal was approved unanimously.
The 25-member youth coalition then launched a marketing campaign to secure resources to carry out its plans. A $15,000 community building and engagement grant from NeighborWorks America was a significant help. Seventy-five volunteers—including youth, Little Dixie employees, city and county officials, state representatives and business leaders—came together and completed the project during the June 2015 NeighborWorks Week.
Over the course of just three days, they transformed the park back into a community amenity. On July 4, we celebrated the refurbishment of Ansley Park, including the dedication of the future site of the Choctaw County Veterans Monument. Since the project’s completion, there have been no reported crimes in the area, the park remains clean, and children and families use it daily.
One lesson learned: People often become jaded and opt to not respond or react to challenges; therefore, change cannot occur. There is much to be offered and learned from the younger generation.