You are here

Lifting a community takes a holistic approach

By Soyia Ellison

Becky Moose kneeled in front of a deteriorating gravestone in St. John’s Cemetery on Monday in Pensacola, Florida, running her fingers across what was left of its letters.

“Is that an ‘s’?” she asked. “I think so.”

Becky Moose feels for the name on a gravestone in St. John’s Cemetery in Pensacola, Fla. She is part of an AmeriCorps team helping document all the gravestones in the cemetery, which will allow it to qualify for the National Register of Historic Places. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Graham Green

Then she scribbled her best guess at the name on a legal pad and moved on to the next marker.

Moose was one of about a dozen AmeriCorps members recording and photographing gravestones as part of a larger neighborhood revitalization project organized by Pensacola Habitat for Humanity.

The Westside Garden District project — Pensacola Habitat’s first foray into neighborhood revitalization — is off to a strong start thanks to the help of about 80 AmeriCorps members in town for this week’s Habitat for Humanity Build-a-Thon.

Between bouts of torrential morning rain, participants worked to restore the cemetery, clear vacant lots and break up crumbling sidewalks. Later in the week, they’ll install new sidewalks and paint address numbers on curbs.

“This is a way to uplift an entire community,” said Tim Evans, executive director of Pensacola Habitat. “It’s a holistic approach.”

Before the Great Depression, Evans said, the Westside Garden District was the thriving center of African-American life in Pensacola. But city officials largely abandoned the neighborhood during the racially tense 1950s and ’60s, and today it is home to vacant lots and small, mostly run-down houses.

Pensacola Habitat has built more than 100 homes in the district over the years, Evans said, and so it seemed fitting that the affiliate begin its neighborhood revitalization efforts there.

‘I think we’re going to make a great impact’

AmeriCorps member Shannon Edgerton, who is serving with Pensacola Habitat, helped lay the groundwork for this week’s efforts by conducting interviews and meetings with residents last fall to find out what they thought their community needed.

“I’ve been looking forward to Build-a-Thon,” he said. “I think we’re going to make a great impact. I think the residents will appreciate the neighborhood looking much better than it did before the AmeriCorps members came together.”

Edgerton has a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from Jackson State University in Mississippi. He joined AmeriCorps to gain some experience in his specialty, community redevelopment. One of the best things about the job, he said, is learning how to interact with people from diverse backgrounds.

But there are smaller, more personal, things that are just as important.

At age 36, he’s gone camping for the first time. He ate carrots for the first time. And he swam in the Gulf of Mexico for the first time.

“AmeriCorps,” he said, “has enabled me to broaden my horizons.”

Dwight Watson, a Westside Garden District resident who is also on the board of the Friends of St. John’s Cemetery Foundation, says he is excited about the prospect of turning the gatehouse into a community center. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Soyia Ellison

‘A more well-rounded adult’

Becky Moose, the young woman documenting gravestones, also credits AmeriCorps for helping shape her.

Moose, 23, works as a construction crew leader with Our Towns Habitat for Humanity in Davidson, N.C., and began her year of service just weeks after graduating from Appalachian State University with a degree in construction.

“AmeriCorps is not always easy,” Moose said. “But it’s definitely helped me become a more well-rounded adult. If there’s anything that’s going to make you grow up, it’s this experience.”

Moose hopes to sign on with a framing company after her AmeriCorps year is over. And in 2015, she plans to join the Air Force as a civil engineer.

“But I’ll stay with Habitat as a volunteer,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

One person grateful for her help this week is Dwight Watson, who bought a 100-year-old house in the Westside Garden District 10 years ago and has been slowly restoring it.

Watson also is the vice president of the Friends of St. John’s Cemetery Foundation and was on hand Monday to oversee AmeriCorps members’ work in the cemetery, which included painting the gatehouse. He said the plan is to restore the building for use as a community center.

He acknowledges that at the moment, his neighborhood is not an inviting place.

“Right now there is no reason to move over here when there are nicer areas,” he said.

But he is hopeful that Habitat’s help marks the beginning of a transformation.

“The gatehouse being restored cheers me up.”