Hundreds of volunteers head to Wilson Park for two-day neighborhood improvement project

About 300 volunteers armed with paint rollers and power tools descended on Baltimore’s Wilson Park neighborhood on Monday for a two-day community improvement project.

The event, Building a Healthy Neighborhood, sent home improvement teams to 10 homes in the area to take on projects ranging in scale from repairing trip hazards and installing energy-efficient lighting to, in one residence, moving the kitchen from the basement to the main floor.

The community’s Willow Avenue Park also will get a makeover, with fresh paint for its pavilions, fence repairs and a geometric mural inside the pool.

The event is being put on by Rebuilding Together Baltimore, the local affiliate of a national group, along with sponsors Lowe’s, Wells Fargo Housing Foundation and CBRE, a commercial real estate firm.

“We’ve waited for this for a long time,” said Nia Govan, president of the Wilson Park Northern Neighbors Association.

Wilson Park, a North Baltimore neighborhood near Morgan State University, is named for Harry O. Wilson, a black banker and investor who bought the land in the 1917 and built it up with homes as one of the city’s first neighborhoods for African-American families.

Like much of the city, the area has struggled with crime. Events like the Rebuilding Together project and routine prayer walks organized by the neighborhood association send a message that residents care about their community and organizes are helping push back against trouble makers, Govan said.

“It’s important to show people there is support, that people care,” said Donna Blackwell, president of the nearby York Road Partnership. “There’s a lot of despair — this brings the light.”

Blackwell was among dozens of volunteers who showed up at Willow Avenue Park on Monday morning.

She stood on a picnic table, craning her neck to slather the support beams of the pavilion above her with a fresh coat of orange paint.

Later in the day and Tuesday, they planned to scrub graffiti off the playground equipment, repaint the barbecue grills and install new entrance markers.

They also planned to paint a geometric pattern inside the pool. Youths from the neighborhood designed the pattern, which features a peace sign in the middle.

“If the kids have a sense of ownership,” Govan said, “they’ll want to preserve it.”

Founded in 1989, Rebuilding Together Baltimore focuses on home improvement projects for low-income families and seniors. The organization was selected by its national organization to host the Building a Healthy Neighborhood event, which puts in overdrive what the local group does year-round.

“The real difference between what goes on all year and this, is this is a big party,” said Caroline Blakely, president and CEO of the national Rebuilding Together. “It’s meant to have a major statement, a major impact and create a major buzz.”

Baltimore was selected for the project from Rebuilding Together’s 145 local affiliates because of the work the group already has done in the area, Blakely said.

Since its founding, the local organization has worked in 1,400 homes in 35 neighborhoods. Govans and Wilson Park have been the organization’s latest area of focus, said Bonnie Bessor, executive director of Rebuilding Together Baltimore.

“It’s really going to give us a chance to highlight on a local and national level the work we do here in Baltimore,” Bessor said.

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, large dumpsters dotted corners where teams of volunteers were setting to work inside homes.

At Louise Tomlinson’s Wilbert Avenue rowhome, workers were in the thick of one of the event’s most ambitious projects — moving her kitchen from the basement to the main floor.

Improvement Zone, a Baltimore-area firm that partners with Rebuilding Together Baltimore to do work at a reduced rate, began work at Tomlinson’s home last week. Owner Nick Neboshynsky said he expected to finish installing the plumbing, new cabinets and new appliances by the end of Tuesday.

“I’ve been up since two o’clock just anticipating it,” said Tomlinson, who stood outside her house, watching Neboshynsky’s crew haul materials up her front steps.

Tomlinson was drawn to the house in the 1980s in part because of its basement kitchen, which lets out to the back yard for easy ventilation when she gets cooking something steamy.

But she’s ready for a change — and a suite of brand new appliances.

“I just think it’s wonderful to see everyone pitching in,” Tomlinson said, “doing for someone who can’t do for themselves at the moment.”

sarah.gantz@baltsun.com

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