“Tomorrow, our seeds will grow. All we need is dedication.” ~ Lauryn Hill
Winter is the most exciting time of the year for gardening. Yes, winter, and no, that’s not a typo.
The dreary damp winter months are when gardeners prepare plans, sow seeds, bury bulbs, and pray our patience (and our soon-to-be-plants) hold out over the long, cold weeks ahead. As is the practice for many winter holiday traditions, the darkness and stillness create opportunities for us to embrace the slower pace and open up space for reflection. This is a time of glancing back to take note of how far we’ve come while squinting towards the horizon.
In the spirit of the season, the Partnership would like to use this time to plan, prepare, and predict but also to reflect, recount, and most importantly, rejoice. The following are a few examples of seeds that have been planted in 2022 that the Partnership is eager to nurture and watch grow in the new year.
Counting Our Blooms (and Our Blessings)
In 2022, the Partnership celebrated several significant milestones—hiring a second full time staff person; completing a second collaborative Community Health Assessment and Community Health Improvement Planning Process; launching the Building a Better Table Civic Engagement Series and the Youngstown Health Improvement Zone initiative with community partners; securing and renewing financial commitments (totalling over $85,000); and collecting over 300 stories in the Story Bank
These are just a few of the blooms we’ve seen from seeds we’ve been planting. Our hopes for the new year are to see the return of these blossoms while we await for others to grow and spread.
Healthy Food Retail—Bringing Healthy Food into Our Neighborhoods
For almost five years now, the Healthy Food Retail Team has been hard at work innovating strategies to improve both access to and affordability of healthy foods. Perhaps the most high-profile challenge to health among the three teams, the lack of access to healthy foods has been in the news many times throughout the last decade if not longer. Responding to the urgency of food insecurity, the Healthy Food Retail team quickly adopted an approach that acknowledges both access and affordability and to identify what is in our control to do now.
Communities have been attempting to attract big box grocery stores with little success to show for the time, energy, and goodwill spent chasing phantoms. This match-making-mishap as well as an alternative approach was written about in the October/November edition of the “For the Health of It” column in Mahoning Matters.
In addition to the victories referenced in the article above, as the year winds down, it’s a good time to lift up stories and examples of blossoms from the seeds that have been carefully planted and dutifully nurtured this past year:
Parks and Greenspaces—Strengthening the Hearts of Our Communities
“Parks are the hearts of our communities”—wise, profound words shared by Mayor Doug Franklin during his opening remarks at the inaugural Mahoning Valley Park and Recreation Professionals Leadership Summit. Thirty park and recreation professionals from across the region came together for a day full of equal parts information and inspiration. Evaluations overwhelmingly indicated that the summit was a hit and will become a regular, regional occurrence.
Once a sleepy subject, parks and greenspaces have become the talk of the town. Fueling this new-found passion for parks is the increased usage and value of parks and other open spaces as refuges and safe havens throughout the COVID 19 pandemic. Additionally, the American Rescue Plan Act gave communities the chance and confidence to think about parks beyond day to day maintenance, which has tended to cause parks to be seen as budget burdens rather than boons.
This increased awareness of and interest in parks inspired us to argue that parks should be considered part of a communities essential infrastructure. Shifting conversations and resources in this way will result in more active neighborhoods and communities as well as healthier ones in a broad sense. Welcoming and well maintained parks and greenspaces improve the physical and mental health of the people who use them. Moreover, they also can become locations that improve the health of the larger local ecology—supporting more diverse and robust life from people to plants to pill bugs.
The Parks and Greenspaces Team has been responding to this increased awareness of and interest in park and greenspace investments through multiple project and policy initiatives:
Active Transportation—Leading by Example to Improve Our Streets
Perhaps the most complex of the three focus areas within the current Healthy Community Partnership Framework, but also possibly the most impactful. The Active Transportation Team has taken on the challenge of not only attempting to change hearts and minds about how people move from place to place, but they are also advocating to change the way the world looks around us. Both are tall orders and seem quite the sisyphean feat.
Fortunately, there are some early champions to help amplify these messages. Communities across the Valley are shifting gears and moving away from auto-centrism and towards a more multi-modal framework to ensure their communities are better connected, more accessible, and more equitable for residents today and tomorrow.
To accomplish these ambitious goals, the team has prepared themselves for the long journey ahead. However, they also have plotted a path that allows for frequent stops at milestones to show progress along the way. Below are a few examples of those mile-markers made this year.
“Every moment and every event of everyman’s life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men.” — Thomas Merton
While we are energized and excited by the accomplishment listed above, we know there’s much more left to do, ground to cover, and connections to make. And, many of these bright blooms are still growing and evolving to become brighter and bolder as each year passes.
“Joy is an act of resistance”—a slogan slapped on t-shirts, stickers, and any other semi-flat surface may sound empty or cliche. But that doesn’t make it less true. The Partnership was convened and continues to operate with a focus on challenges and topics that are painful, persistent, and seemingly impenetrable, at times. So any occasion to celebrate moving even one small step closer towards a brighter horizon is one worth taking. That’s the whole purpose of the Story Bank—to show how each story, each step, which by itself may seem small, when added up, becomes a giant leap.
As we roll up our sleeves and prepare to dig into another new year of enriching our soil to nurture our seeds, it is important to reflect and recenter ourselves, but it is equally important to remember to rejoice. To stop and feel the sunshine on our faces. To watch the gentle breeze carry seeds along an invisible current, moving them along on their journeys to becoming something beautiful, powerful, and eternal.