York City to launch community ecosystem initiative

Rebecca Klar
York Dispatch

York City residents would be subdivided into smaller "neighborhoods" as part of a new plan to connect residents with resources, city officials said. 

The York City Community Ecosystem Initiative would break down the city's 5.3 square miles and 44,000 residents into 16 separate neighborhoods. Each neighborhood of about 800 homes would have an assigned coordinator who would speak with the residents and connect those in need with available services. 

The city received a $125,000 grant from WellSpan to cover salaries for the coordinators. The City Council will vote on accepting the grant at the Tuesday, Feb. 19, meeting.

The job listing for part-time coordinators will be on the city website until Friday, Feb. 8. The listed salary is $16.50 an hour. Diaz Woodard, recreation program specialist, and Mayor Michael Helfrich, along with human relations, will make up the hiring team. 

Rather than typical solutions which "treat symptoms," the ecosystem initiative aims to "treat the disease," Helfrich said.

Once in place, it would effectively improve all the city's problems, he said. Well, except for one — potholes.

5 major problems: According to Helfrich, the city faces five major issues: taxes, crime, student performance at York City schools, trash and condition of houses. 

"You can pull on any string and it's never going to fix anything," Helfrich said.

However, "if you get into the neighborhoods and you actually help people know what they're worth," the city can begin improving, he said. 

The initiative works as a hand up, not a hand out. Its goal is to instill a sense of community, pride and ownership.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich speaks as organizers hold a press conference to introduce 10,000 Acts of Kindness, a year-long collaborative effort to spread kindness and goodwill, outside of the York County Administrative Center in York City, Friday, June 29, 2018. file photo

About 15 years ago, three of the city's community centers were removed when federal Community Development Block Grant funding was cut by about $4 million, Helfrich said. Although remaining centers are open to the whole community, such as Crispus Attucks, 605 S. Duke St., portions of the city were abandoned. 

"From what I hear, at these centers there was ownership, 'The Princess Street Center, that's my place,'" Helfrich said. 

"You can try and have some programs and things, but unless people really feel like it's theirs, you're not going to get to those that need help the most, that have been so mentally and physically abused or disenfranchised that they're living in a whole separate world. And that separate world breeds, unintentionally, most of the problems that we have in the City of York," he said. 

Shared vision: Helfrich put Woodard in charge of the initiative. Woodard, a York native, shares Helfrich's vision and enthusiasm for the project. 

As ecosystem manager, Woodard would meet with the five ecosystem coordinators the city is in the process of hiring. Coordinators would go door to door in each neighborhood to find out what residents would benefit from. 

Once trained at the end of February, coordinators would be acclimated with each neighborhood's available services and spaces, Woodard said. 

"If you live on the west end of town and you need, say, resume help, or say you need financial literacy help, we're trying to limit the fact that they have to travel across town to get those services and create a plan where those services can be offered in their neighborhoods," he said. 

Crispus Attucks hosts their 35th annual Cultural Thanksgiving Celebration and honors this year's Rising STARS Award recipients including Diaz Woodard, Monday,  November 19, 2018. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

Another way to describe the coordinators is "net-workers," Helfrich said. Rather than creating new programming, staff are coordinating existing opportunities and using city amenities to their full potential. 

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For example, the city is in discussion with Harrisburg Area Community College to bring secondary education classes into the community. The York City school board gave the city permission to use primary school buildings for programming between 6:30 and 9:30 p.m.

It gives the city a chance to offer parents space to learn while knowing their children are in a safe area, Helfrich said. 

Coordinators would reach out to different organizations and spaces, such as community centers, schools and churches, to see how resources can be better organized to reach neighborhood residents. 

'Just 16 Braddocks': Helfrich said he was inspired by a talk Lt. Gov. John Fetterman gave at Martin Library. Fetterman talked about his time in Braddock as an AmeriCorps volunteer, which lead to the about 800 residents of the town electing him mayor.

Fetterman improved the city of Braddock by educating and investing in residents. He helped them get their GEDs. He led projects to renovate abandoned buildings. 

"He got these folks out of survival mode," Helfrich said. 

York is "just 16 Braddocks," he said. 

By splitting the city into 16 parts, the city can cultivate that sense of community pride — and hit more doors in more days. 

"The total package is about helping people get out of survival mode, so they can be the best people they were meant to be," Helfrich said. "I won't get religious, but I don't believe anybody was put on this earth to be in the conditions I see so many people in around the City of York." 

— Rebecca Klar can be reached at rklar@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter @RebeccaKlar_