Olympic Hills Elementary School’s ‘Walking School Bus’ route gets a makeover

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, volunteers and members of Feet First – an agency dedicated to creating walkable cities and neighborhoods – set out to clean up a path frequently taken by students on their way school.  Drew Devitis, Feet First’s Volunteer Coordinator and a Solid Ground Apple Corps Member, led the project along with Apple Corps Member Zoe Harris. We would like to share the following article Drew wrote describing the project and experience.

Before & after image of Walking School Bus stair route

Before & after image of Walking School Bus stair route (photo by Feet First)

On a cool, crisp January morning, twenty volunteers gathered at Seattle’s Olympic Hills Elementary School to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and serve the greater community at large. Several compassionate volunteers from Seattle Children’s Hospital and UW Radiology, along with some independent volunteers, joined Feet First in cleaning up the route of a Walking School Bus, a parent-led walking group that leads students to school on “Two Feet Tuesdays.” The passion and commitment from these volunteers definitely fit the character of the day as well as the creative altruism that MLK, Jr. espoused.

The focus of the volunteer project was on cleaning up a staircase and walkway within yards of Olympic Hills Elementary, which is one of four Seattle schools currently participating in a Safe Routes to School initiative supported by Feet First. This walkway had fallen into disarray over the past several years. Thorny blackberry bushes and wild entanglements of English ivy had been steadily encroaching upon the stairs, making it feel like an uninviting place for kids walking to school. Moreover, rain soaked leaves, slippery pine needles, and other debris littered the walkway, making it potentially hazardous for children and adults alike.

Before and after bramble cleanup (photo from Feet First)

Before & after bramble cleanup (photo by Feet First)

In order to approach the task at hand, volunteers formed two separate work groups. One set of volunteers, armed with rakes, brooms and clippers, tended to cleaning the walkway and trimming the vegetative growth that was encroaching the stairs. The other group, equipped with loppers and shovels, concentrated on removing a thick patch of blackberry bushes, which had overtaken the bottom of the staircase and made the path feel like a rather uninviting place. After a few hours of hard work, the staircase and walkway became a much more appealing place to walk.

By the end of the day, volunteers had impressively filled up an entire dumpster with invasive species and assorted yard waste. The stairs, which had been obscured by the thicket of blackberries, are now clearly visible from the street. Additionally, mulch was spread throughout the site where the blackberry bushes had once been, creating a warm, pleasing feel.  A neighbor driving by in her car even stopped to get out and thank the volunteers for all their hard work in transforming this public walkway into a more pleasant, welcoming space.

“You would be surprised how much of a difference a clean, inviting walkway can make to enrich the experience for kids walking to school,” says Jen Cole, Safe Routes to School Program Director. “The effort to clean this once untidy walkway, combined with the installation of safety flag buckets in the nearby area, will really go a long way to make the Olympic Hills neighborhood safer for walking.”

This project was made possible by volunteers from Seattle Children’s Hospital and UW Radiology through the United Way of King County, and the community of Olympic Hills Elementary School. We’re also thankful for the support of Public Space Management Program, Development Lead Jennifer Wieland and the Seattle Department of Transportation’s Urban Forestry Division, which generously provided the materials used for this project.

Meeting legislators makes Olympia feel less remote

Editor’s note: Anthony Bencivengo is a senior at Nathan Hale High School. For his Senior Project, he is working with Solid Ground and the Statewide Poverty Action Network to engage his peers in the state political process. Here, Anthony reports on lobbying in Olympia with other youth on Martin Luther King, Jr. Lobby Day.

January 20, 2014 –

The inside of the People’s House of the Washington State Capitol wasn’t quite as majestic as its facade. The corridors of the John L. O’Brien Building, where state Representatives have their offices, were hot, crowded with people, and had the slowest elevators ever. But as my group squeezed its way through, I was so excited that I hardly noticed.

part of the Hales H.S. crew in Olympia l to r: Robert Mercer, Francis Britschgi, Naomi Price-Lazarus and Jasmine Shirey. Photo by Anthony Bencivengo.

Part of the Nathan Hale H.S. crew in Olympia, l to r: Robert Mercer, Francis Britschgi, Naomi Price-Lazarus and Jasmine Shirey (Photo by Anthony Bencivengo)

This was a day I’d been looking forward to for awhile. As part of my Senior Project, I organized a group of my fellow Nathan Hale High School students to join Statewide Poverty Action Network’s annual MLK Day legislative lobbying session. We, along with over 100 other volunteers, split into groups by legislative district and spread out to meet personally with our state legislators.

The issues we raised ranged widely, from the unfairness of large Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs) to preserving welfare programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). And the people in our groups ranged widely, too. Experienced legislative advocates (who seemed to know everyone in Olympia) helped the rest of us navigate the process. People with mental illnesses told horror stories about the drastically underfunded state agencies they turned to for help. Homeless single mothers shared their equally bad experiences with the unresponsive state welfare system. And high school students like us spoke up, too.

Part of the 46th District team, l to r: Robert Mercer, Sarajane Siegfriedt, Jesse Kleinman. Photo by Anthony Bencivengo.

Part of the 46th District team, l to r: Robert Mercer, Sarajane Siegfriedt, Jesse Kleinman (Photo by Anthony Bencivengo)

We learned a lot from the people in our groups, particularly those with personal experiences of homelessness.

“I sort of had this image in my head of what homeless people were like,” admits Naomi Price-Lazarus. That image was changed by the actual homeless people she met. “Their strength was really surprising,” she recalls. “They keep pushing and trying to overcome all the obstacles they’re facing, and even when they keep failing, they don’t give up.”

“This was definitely an eye-opener for me,” adds Francis Britschgi. “Before, poverty was just kind of something that happened, and it was too bad. But the stories I heard today were almost tear-moving.”

The legislators we talked to seemed to be affected in the same way. “They seemed genuinely interested,” observes Robert Mercer. “The one I talked to was really supportive and enthusiastic,” agrees Naomi. They were already well-informed about many of the issues, shared most of our concerns, and pledged to work to fix the problems we had mentioned.

This experience really humanized our state legislators for us. Upon seeing a teddy bear on the desk of a state Representative, Jasmine Shirey exclaimed, “They’re like people!”

“They were really easy to talk to,” adds Naomi. “It wasn’t super formal or anything.”

It turns out our legislators have their quirks, too (who knew Gerry Pollet had a Lord of the Rings Pez collection?). Francis saw a sign on one Representative’s door that said, ‘Tax the rich or kill the poor.’ “I was surprised,” he says. “It seemed kind of inflammatory.” But it was also a sign that these legislators chose to enter politics not for money or power but because, like us, they are passionate about economic justice. And with our state facing problems that will take a lot of passion and hard work to solve, that was encouraging.

We left Olympia feeling hopeful. Our state legislature, which had felt very remote only the day before, now seemed much more accessible. “I feel like I could go into their office if I needed to,” Robert says. “Or call or email them,” adds Francis. “It feels much more open.”

With this sense that our legislators are listening comes a renewed determination to send them a message. “All these legislators were so great and make such a good impression,” reflects Francis. “But our state’s still [in trouble]. So what’s up?”

What’s up is the difficulty of getting meaningful reform passed in a legislature where infighting and special-interest influence encourage inaction. That’s why we have to sustain the pressure on Olympia that we began to create today. This event was not a panacea. It was only the beginning of a long fight for change. But now, we feel much more empowered to make a difference in this fight.

“It’s really easy to get involved in politics,” replies Naomi when asked what she takes away from the event. “It was a really great experience,” concludes Francis. “Would recommend. 10 out of 10.”

Editor’s note: Read Anthony’s earlier post on recruiting teens to come lobby, Teens going to Olympia to change the conversation, Anthony Bencivengo, 1/20/14.

Teens going to Olympia to change the conversation

Editor’s note: Anthony Bencivengo is senior at Nathan Hale High School. For his Senior Project he is working with Solid Ground and the Statewide Poverty Action Network to engage his peers in the state political process. In this, the first of his reports, Anthony talks about recruiting youth to join him for today’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Lobby Day in Olympia.

January 17, 2014 – Robert Mercer has wanted to make his voice heard for a long time. His mother works at a psychiatric clinic that serves homeless and low-income people, and she has never shied away from discussing the obstacles they face. “Ever since I was a kid she was always grubbing about some legislation or another,” Robert recalls. “I guess it kind of rubbed off on me.” Robert is worried about homeless people who suffer from mental issues but can’t afford treatment. He fears that access to mental health services is becoming increasingly scarce as state funds dry up in an era of budget cuts. The result, far too often, has been homeless people suffering from psychotic breaks he believes could have been prevented if they had somewhere to turn for help.  “They’re in really bad situations,” Robert says, “That more state funding could have prevented.”

Anthony (l) talks to sophmore Tanner O'Donnell about Lobby Day

Anthony talks to sophmore Tanner O’Donnell about Lobby Day

I feel it’s extremely important for our politicians to hear about these issues. That’s why, as my senior project, I’m organizing a group of my fellow Nathan Hale High School students (Robert included) into a youth contingent that will join the Statewide Poverty Action Network (a social-justice advocacy organization closely linked to Solid Ground) in its annual MLK Day legislative lobbying session in Olympia. In a few days, we’ll be meeting with our state legislators to discuss issues facing our state’s homeless and low-income communities.

For me, this is an exciting opportunity. I’ve always been deeply involved with social justice – volunteering at food banks, participating in rallies and frequently writing to newspapers and my state legislators. I feel political discourse at the state level has been overly focused on cutting safety-net programs just as the Great Recession makes them more needed than ever. I hope that by speaking personally to our legislators, my fellow students and I can help change the conversation.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. The group I’ve organized is filled with a wide variety of students who each bring in different perspectives and experiences. The common thread is their passion for social justice.

Nolan Wolf, who recently completed a stint as a state legislature page serving some of the very legislators we’ll be lobbying, is coming because, as a person with arthrogryposis (a physical disability limiting his range of arm motion), he understands what it’s like not to be expected to succeed. People, he says, sometimes see him “as a disability, instead of as a person with a disability.”

Grace Jones’s youth group has hosted middle-schoolers from low-income housing development Yesler Terrace to speak about the documentaries they’re making about the ongoing remodel of their complex to meet safety standards. Aedan Roberts has used his status as an editor for the school paper to publish the personal stories of homeless immigrants. And the list goes on. Conventional wisdom goes that teens are lazy and disengaged, but this dedicated group of student activists is anything but.

All of us are excited to go to Olympia, for a variety of reasons. Besides the chance to make a difference, students in my group see this as a chance to learn more about state government, social justice, and the views of their representatives. Most of us are optimistic that our lobbying will make a difference. “I think it’s important for people to see a large youth presence in groups working for change,” says Grace. “Teens care, we have ideas, and we want to learn more.”

“Maybe, in a year or so,” Robert adds hopefully, “A politician will vote in a different way on something because I swayed them.”

Many of us are nervous, of course. Speaking face to face with experienced politicians can be intimidating for high-school seniors barely old enough to vote. Many of us are afraid of sounding uninformed, inarticulate or timid. But from my conversations with the students I’m going with, I can tell that they have more than enough eloquence, passion and knowledge. We must always first face down our fears in order to face down injustice. That’s another change I hope will be affected on MLK Day – that we will become confident in our own strength and power to create change. Some of us already have. “I don’t really have any fears,” answers Tanner O’Donnell when asked whether the event makes him nervous. “Except for bears. They’re scary.”

To make sure you catch the next report in Anthony’s series, please sign up to have this blog’s posts emailed directly to you!

Poverty Action at the Capitol

Poverty Action members march & rally in Olympia in 2012

Poverty Action members march & rally in Olympia in 2012

Join the Statewide Poverty Action Network in Olympia on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Monday, January 21. Speak out about the importance of basic needs services, fair housing, racial equality, healthcare and other issues impacting the lives of people across Washington State.

Poverty Action’s annual lobby day brings together hundreds of people from across Washington State. It supports issues brought forward by people from across our state through face-to-face meetings with lawmakers, direct actions, and trainings to take our movement back to our hometowns.

This is a great opportunity for both seasoned activists and people who have never expressed their opinions to our lawmakers. Students are especially encouraged to join us and bring the perspective and power of the next generation to the state political process!

WHAT: 
Poverty Action Day at the Capitol – A day of community building, advocacy trainings and exercising political power!

The Washington State Capitol, where YOU have the power!

The Washington State Capitol, where YOU have the power!

WHEN:
Monday, 1/21/13,
9:30am – 3:30pm (bus leaves Seattle 7:30am, returns about 5pm)

WHERE: 
Temple Beth Hatfiloh
201 8th Avenue SE
Olympia, WA 98501

HOW: 
Register online or call 206.694.6794
(toll-free at 1.866.789.7726).

Poverty Action has planned a morning of issue and advocacy briefings in preparation for the 1pm rally at the Capitol and group meetings with lawmakers.

This session, Poverty Action will focus on:

  • Saving safety net programs by protecting them from budget cuts.
  • Fortifying recent changes in payday lending laws that protect consumers, but are under fire from the industry.
  • Tightening up consumer protections against debt collectors and Zombie Debt.

There is free transportation from Seattle to Poverty Action Day at the Capitol (the bus leaves Solid Ground, 1501 N 45th Street in Wallingford, at 7:30am). Breakfast and lunch are provided. Childcare and interpretation services are available upon request.

You can register online or call 206.694.6794 (toll-free at 1.866.789.7726). And for more information, visit the Poverty Action website.

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