Two years ago, Brownsville Area High School chemistry teacher Kelli Dellarose organized a group of students involved with the student council to form a “Students in Action” club for their school. Students in Action (SIA) is a youth leadership program sponsored by the national Jefferson Awards for Public Service to encourage student involvement and volunteerism in their local communities. Feeling a close connection to Brownsville and a strong desire to make it a better place to live, a core group of eight students comprising the SIA team came together to brainstorm ideas about how they could best improve their community. “I knew that this club would be the perfect opportunity to express my feelings about Brownsville, because the club consisted of other students with the same passion as me,” says Chelsea Gump. The team met with the Brownsville Borough Council and local organizations to share their ideas and receive feedback about ways they could best direct their efforts (click here to see a video of the students’ presentation to the council).
The team decided to launch a project that would establish a park downtown with a stage for outdoor performances. Dubbed “Operation Falcon Revitalization” (after the high school mascot), the project aims to spark life into the dormant downtown district by providing a community gathering and entertainment space. At school, the SIA team drew up blueprints and with other students constructed a model of the stage and the surrounding park area. Nearby Dunlap’s Creek Bridge, the country’s first cast iron bridge built in 1839, served as inspiration for the design of the stage. The park and stage will be located on Market Street, on the former site of the abandoned Health Mart / Hardware store. Demolition of that structure began in May 2012.
The students have been actively involved in fundraising for this project. The overall cost is estimated around $300,000; $100,000 alone is required to construct the stage. Public and private funding and support has come from a variety of sources, such as the borough of Brownsville, the chamber of commerce, charitable organizations, and private businesses (including a local car dealership that donated $100 to the project for every car sold).
Brownsville itself has received funding and technical assistance from the Appalachian Regional Council (ARC), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a federal effort to encourage small communities to build on local assets. In August 2012, students attended a daylong workshop in nearby California, PA, hosted by ARC and the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO). The workshop focused on small town economic development strategies available to communities like Brownsville. “The workshop really helped the students and taught them that there is a process,” says Norma Ryan, treasurer of the Brownsville Area Revitalization Corporation (BARC), which has also supported the SIA team’s efforts.
For the students, it was never about winning an award, but rather about being a part of real change in the community. “If we do something for this community, we’ve accomplished our purpose,” said team member Christian Sesek during the early months of planning.
Teacher Kelli Dellarose believes that this project would never have moved forward without the students providing the driving force. “Students have been the fuel behind the fire,” she says. “With the kids behind this project, now everyone wants to get involved.”
Brownsville Mayor Lester Ward agrees. “It gives us some energy. It means we have some of the young people behind the town of Brownsville itself. Hopefully, it encourages some of us older people who’ve been beat down to buy into the project again,” he told the Herald-Standard after the students won the Jefferson Award.
Participating in a community project like this has had a major impact on how the students view themselves and their community. The students have felt part of something bigger than themselves and discovered a newfound faith in their hometown. “My views [about Brownsville] have altered because for the first time something is being done, something is happening, something is changing,” remarks Franchesca Legros.
Because of their involvement in this project and their close connections to their families, both she and Chelsea Gump have plans to return home to Brownsville after college. “This project symbolizes a brighter future where I can one day raise my own family, and give my children the same experience my grandma and mother had when they were growing up,” says Chelsea.
The work that provided the basis for this publication was supported by funding under an award with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The substance and findings of the work are dedicated to the public. The author and publisher are solely responsible for the accuracy of the statements and interpretations contained in this publication. Such interpretations do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government.