In a world that sometimes seems chaotic, angry, and full of despair, Bend-in-the-River is a place that offers hope and peace.
Formerly a two-acre wasteland on the banks of Salt Lake City's Jordan River, the hard work and passion of hundreds of volunteers from the community, university, elementary school and corporate groups transformed Bend-in-the-River into an urban green space and environmental education area. During the past six years, "the Bend" became a cornerstone for the ethnically and socio-economically diverse community surrounding it. It's also become a positive symbol for a struggling community unfairly labeled "not quite good enough." Instead of giving up, many residents are fighting back, getting involved, making a difference, and chipping away at the walls of doubt, intolerance, and narrow-mindedness surrounding them. The Bend is a catalyst of this magical change.
Bend-in-the-River represents the truest sense of community partnership. Diverse partner agencies, including the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center at the University of Utah, Tree Utah, Utah Society for Environmental Education, Utah Federation for Youth, Corporation for National and Community Service, and Salt Lake City Corporation, generously contribute. The project allows people in the surrounding neighborhoods to get involved and feel like they are making a genuine difference in their community. Although all age groups participate, it's the youth involvement that is most exciting. Parkview Elementary, the partner school for the project, and its students have been active since the project's inception. They helped survey the area when it was an overgrown, abandoned mess. And through the creative lens inherent to children, they saw past the weeds and garbage to envision a place they could call their own. Parkview students pulled weeds, planted trees, painted pictures, studied migratory birds, tested water quality, and wrote earth poetry. The Bend site now hosts hundreds of schoolchildren every year, and each fall, there is a new group of excited students who have heard about the Bend from an older sibling, neighbor, or cousin.
As the AmeriCorps VISTA project coordinator, I got to work with these amazing kids each week. Although I usually taught the lesson, I ended up learning so much from the students, like how to say "river" in Spanish or how to sneak up to a tree without scaring away the downy woodpecker. But the most important lesson I learned occurred during a Saturday service project.
A group of student leaders from the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center (my AmeriCorps*VISTA sponsor agency) and a group of teenagers from Odyssey House, a residential drug and alcohol treatment center in Salt Lake City, visited the Bend. It was a wonderful, warm fall day, and the kids from Odyssey House impressed me with their enthusiasm and hard work. After our service project, we held a reflection session in the Michael Foundation Urban Tree House, the Bend's outdoor classroom. I told the participants a little more about the history of the project and thanked them for their help. Then I asked for their thoughts. Based on my experience with teenagers I wasn't expecting much response.
They surprised me as almost every one of them took a turn to thank or congratulate each other and speak about the importance of service. Our reflection period was ending when one quiet young man spoke up. He told us that he had grown up in the surrounding neighborhood, and he remembered when the Bend was unsafe for kids and families. He also confessed that he and his cousins had been responsible for some of the mischief. Everyone laughed, but then his tone turned more serious. He said that he couldn't wait to finish his term at Odyssey House so he could bring his cousins to Bend-in-the-River and show them the changes.
At that moment, I realized the incredible importance of Bend-in-the-River and other projects like it. The Bend reaches kids, even if it's one at a time, and gives them an outlet to make a tangible change for the better, both in their community and in themselves. It dawned on me that the Odyssey House kids removing invasive weeds at the Bend was remarkably similar to them working to remove negative elements from their own lives. Conversely, each time a new shrub or tree is planted at the site, it affords us an opportunity to worry about something other than the concerns of daily life and just focus on the simple act of planting a tree … the labor of digging a hole, the feeling of soil between our fingers, and the care and concern necessary to ensure the seedling will survive.
If the students who enjoy the Bend can learn to care for the land in this way, I have every hope that they can spread that knowledge. Not only just taking care of the earth, but also in taking care of each other and their communities. Perhaps it's idealistic, but idealism brought me to national service with AmeriCorps*VISTA. And in difficult times like these, what else do we have besides the belief that each of us can make a difference?
I often think about the young man who joined the reflection conversation and told us about his history at Bend-in-the-River and his plans for the future. I hope he does come back to the Bend many times to see the changes he made on the site. And I hope it inspires him, as he did me.
My AmeriCorps*VISTA experience changed both my outlook on the world and plans for the future. During my two years working as a Bend-in-the-River VISTA volunteer, what I saw in each person that came to the site, whether for educational or service reasons, continually amazed me. I especially enjoyed working with the schoolchildren and ended up going back to school for my teaching certification and a graduate degree in Education. I now teach in a wonderful elementary school with demographics similar to the schools I visited for the Bend project: lower income, ethnically diverse, and largely transient. These demographics could be reasons for my students to give up and drop out. Instead, like at the Bend, they care about this school and the surrounding community. I see so much potential in each of them to make a positive difference in their community, and I am proud to be a part of the faculty that makes this school a safe place for them.
I am grateful for my VISTA experience and the ways it helped me grow, both personally and professionally. Most of all, I am grateful for the opportunity I had to spend two years at the Bend, in a community that I otherwise might not have explored.