New friends next door

Friday, June 3, 2005

Small talk fills the air as one woman greets another in the hot-dog line. Nearby, two children drag their mother over to inspect the fire truck parked on the street. Above, three brightly colored balloons drift into the sky after being freed by a toddler who couldn't quite hold on tight enough.

One, two, three. A scattered group of strangers become friends.

Wednesday evening marked a new beginning for many people who live and work in the area between Spanish and Sprigg and North and Independence streets in downtown Cape Girardeau. A new neighborhood outreach and education program, Neighborhood Connections, held its first official event, a barbecue, in May Greene Garden Park.

The Rev. Bob Towner, rector at Christ Episcopal Church and one of the organizers of Neighborhood Connections, said the group originated with a few volunteers who discovered that some of their neighbors were living in substandard housing.

"Some landlords had tenants that were dangerous, and there were some situations with tenants whose rights were not being properly taken care of," Towner said. "But we decided that rather than try to be great crusaders, we would try to take a more positive approach."

Towner said the volunteers wanted to educate some of their neighbors about the resources available to them by inviting organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Project Hope and Vision House to set up tables on the park lawn.

The group plans to have its first business meeting at 7 p.m. June 16 at the Christ Episcopal Church parish hall to talk about the creation of a new neighborhood watch program.

Angela Lee, a Southeast Missouri State University student who lives in the neighborhood, attended Wednesday's event. She is considering going to the upcoming neighborhood watch meeting because she has concerns about the safety and cleanliness of the neighborhood. But she attended Wednesday night's event just because she wanted in join in.

"I just decided to find out what's going on and get to be part of the neighborhood, meet the ones I don't know and talk to the ones I do know," Lee said.

Bill Port, one of the organizers of Neighborhood Connections, estimated that between 50 and 75 people gathered in the park Wednesday. Port was pleased with the turnout because the organizers did not know how many people to expect.

"I think it's a giant step forward." Port said.

Rhonda Seiler, who worked at an information table for the River City Health Clinic, thinks forming an organization like Neighborhood Connections is a good idea. A few people had expressed interest in the clinic.

"I think it's really good for neighbors to know what businesses are local to them," Seiler said. "They should know that they don't have to go to the west side of town to go to the doctor, that there are doctors on this side of town."

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