TAWN PARENT Commentary: Community woes? Not my problem

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Soaring crime rates. Declining school performance. Litter.

It’s easy to find things to complain about. And I do my fair share. Since my son started kindergarten at an Indianapolis Public Schools magnet last year, I have lamented the lack of parental involvement.

“It’s a shame that some kids don’t have anyone to help with their homework,” I say to myself. “It’s a shame that some moms and dads don’t make it to parent-teacher conferences. It’s a shame that some of the children don’t have better role models at home.”

My friend “Carla” thinks so, too. Our sons were in the same class last year.

She discovered a while back that her son and “Mark,” another boy in the class, share the same learning disability, and both attend special classes on Saturday mornings. But Carla and her husband, “Oliver,” noticed that Mark didn’t always show up on Saturday. They learned that Mark’s mother is single and sometimes has trouble getting him to class. So one day they offered him a ride. Now they pick Mark up every week. And, after class, if Mark’s mother isn’t home, he spends the afternoon at their house.

“You hate to say, ‘It takes a village,’but it does,” Carla said.

Mark has taken quite a shine to Oliver. Sometimes Mark calls him just to chat.

When classes started Aug. 17, a day when IPS asked all dads to take their kids to school, Oliver walked through the door with two boys: his son and Mark.

I love my historic neighborhood. But not all the houses are maintained as well as I’d like.

“It’s a shame that some of the homes around here have peeling paint,” I say to myself. “It’s a shame they have rusty gutters and overgrown bushes.”

My neighbors Dan and Georgann think so, too. For years, they had been troubled by the home next to theirs, which had fallen into disrepair. When they learned that the owner, an absentee landlord, planned to put it on the market, they dreaded the prospect of yet another lackadaisical owner leasing it to yet another lackadaisical tenant. So Dan and Georgann took a deep breath and bought the house themselves.

“It was definitely at that point the worst house on the block,” Dan said. “Yes, we were intimidated. But we thought if it was a nice house, [the buyer] would be an owner-occupant, somebody who cared about the house.”

Dan and Georgann spent four months rehabbing the home from top to bottom. They filled two Dumpsters with trash; installed two new bathrooms; restored the hardwood floors; ripped out paneling and drop ceilings; stripped wallpaper; replaced the plumbing, furnace and air-conditioning; and repainted the place inside and out. Other neighbors, encouraged by the improvements, would stop by to help out.

By the time they were finished, it looked like a different house. Dan and Georgann sold it to owner-occupants who have kept the place looking sharp.

“We made a little money on it, but mostly we did it so we wouldn’t have an eyesore in the neighborhood,” Dan said.

That was a few years ago. Now, the whole block looks different. New owners have breathed new life into other nearby homes.

There are more stories like theirs, stories of a neighbor who turned a vacant lot into a community garden, of someone who anonymously funded playground equipment for a needy school.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the problems in our community, to wring our hands and wish someone would do something. But every time I moan, “It’s a shame … ” I overlook the possibility that the shame might be on me.

People like Carla, Oliver, Dan and Georgann remind me that all help doesn’t have to come from government agencies and charitable groups, that you don’t have to be rich to make a difference, and that, as an old boss of mine used to say, “It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

In New Orleans, where I used to live, there is a not-forprofit called “Each One Save One.” What if we all applied that principle to our own lives? We’re surrounded by things that need saving. One vacant lot. One stray animal. One lonely child.

The next time I catch myself thinking, “It’s a shame … ” I’m going to look around for one thing to save.

Parent is associate editor of IBJ. Her column appears monthly. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tparent@ibj.com.

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