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small grants make huge difference in the destiny of a neighborhood, residents

Urban Bright Clay Residency Program at Art House - Photo Bob Perkoski
Urban Bright Clay Residency Program at Art House - Photo Bob Perkoski
A mural celebrating cultural diversity. A front-porch concert series. An artist-in-residence inspiring local school children. These may sound like humble projects, but when taken as a whole they are part of a grass-roots movement to help strengthen and define Cleveland's historic neighborhoods.

An arm of the Cleveland Foundation, Neighborhood Connections provides small financial gifts to community organizations focused on enhancing neighborhoods and engaging residents. Grants range from as little as $500 up to $5,000. To be considered for a grant, an organization must illustrate how that project will engage citizens, encourage community pride, and make a positive impact.

Successful projects must "connect people with each other in meaningful ways through grass roots and individual projects," says Tom O'Brien, the program's director. "It has to be driven from the grass roots level, and people from the neighborhood have to be involved."

The idea for the Larchmere PorchFest, for example, was hatched when some residents knocked around ideas on how to promote their neighborhood. With help from Neighborhood Connections, organizers crafted a popular annual get-together where dozens of bands perform from the wide, inviting porches of neighbors and friends.

In the Clark-Metro neighborhood, Cub Scout Pack 98 received $2,300 for a gardening program aimed at building practical life skills, fostering an appreciation for the environment, and providing information on health and nutrition. The Thackeray Garden Group in Cedar-Central nabbed a $3,300 grant to build a hoop house at their community garden site, which will increase the amount fresh produce neighbors can grow. Over in Detroit-Shoreway, the Edgewater Hill Block Club received $3,000 to host youth events for its youngest residents.

At its core, the funding and resources provided by Neighborhood Connections gives grass roots organizations an opportunity to help affect change.

"There are all these little groups -- some are one or two people or represent just one little block in a neighborhood," explains Chuck Gliha of Broadway-Slavic Village. "They all have day jobs. They're all volunteers. And they all have ideas." Neighborhood Connections provides them with the resources to turn those ideas into reality.

Gliha is the founder of Broadway Public Art, whose mission is to develop the Broadway/Slavic Village community through the arts, civic events and all-around fun. When Cuyahoga County was about to elect its new executive and council, Broadway Public Art brought the candidates to the community for town hall-style meetings. "We wanted them [the politicians] to recognize Slavic Village as a player," Gliha explains. Money from Neighborhood Connections went toward refreshments and other small items that made a big difference.

While Neighborhood Connections aims to inspire grass roots community building within Cleveland's neighborhoods, it also carries the goal of bridging organizations from different neighborhoods to strengthen the city as a whole. An excellent example of this is Cleveland Neighborhood Arts.

Conceived by O'Brien and Neighborhood Connections, Cleveland Neighborhood Arts connects the directors of the community arts organizations like Karamu House, Foluke Cultural Arts, Chrysanti School of Music, Arts Collinwood and Art House. While the various members of Cleveland Neighborhood Arts offer different programming, they are united around a common goal to bring the arts to city children and adults.

"We're creating a joint curriculum consultancy to strengthen the programs we offer," says Barbara Bachhtell, director of Broadway School of Music & the Arts. "We want to make them more in line with some of the arts standards at the city and state levels. It's been such a wonderful process to have each of us share in this."

Each year, Neighborhood Connections receives about 400 applications for grants. Of those, approximately 90 organizations will be approved, with a total annual payout in the range of $650,000. O'Brien says that the selection panel consists of two dozen community-minded individuals that ask: "Are people stretching themselves? Are they doing something to develop their skills? Will it bring further change?"

"This is what we're really working on -- integrating residents to make positive things happen in the city," O'Brien says.

While tangible success stories illustrate the impact of Neighborhood Connections, it's the unseen outcomes that best tell the story. The most rewarding is how a simple grant can boost individual and neighborhood pride.

"It's the kind of thing that makes a huge difference in the destiny of a neighborhood," Gliha says of his work Broadway Public Art.

Nobody recognizes this fact better than O'Brien. "People want to be seen and heard and recognized," O'Brien says. "And they want to contribute in meaningful ways."


Photographs by Bob Perkoski

- Photos 1 - 4: Sixth grade students from Denison School come to Art House in Brooklyn Centre as part of the Urban Bright Program taught by Kristen Cliffel
- Photo 5: 730-square-foot mural in the Broadway Historic District funded, in part, by Neighborhood Connections
- Photos 6 - 10: Broadway School of Music & the Arts' tuition-free youth drum corps instructed by John McCoy supported by a Neighborhood Connections grant 

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