How families worked together to transform a Salem neighborhood

Over the past 18 months, Bianka Venegas says the Salem park she lives next to has transformed.

Like many parents in the Northgate neighborhood, Venegas didn’t always feel comfortable sending her kids out to play because of drug activity and sometimes violence. Now, she said that’s changed.

“The park is cleaner,” she said. “You’re not scared that your kids are going to get hurt.”

Venegas, who’s lived in the neighborhood for seven years, attributes the change to a group she’s recently joined: the Hallman Neighborhood Family Council, created in early 2021 to bring local parents and residents together to improve their neighborhood and help kids succeed at school.

It’s the sort of change local leaders hoped to see when they came up with the idea for the councils. 

Jim Seymour, the former leader of Salem’s Catholic Community Services, is leading a project to empower neighborhood residents to get together, discuss problems and make changes in their communities.

“We think that that will lead to opportunities to break out of poverty and to enjoy prosperity,” Seymour said.

It’s now expanding, with a second council in the neighborhood around Keizer’s Kennedy Elementary School formed over the summer.

The neighborhood council project grew out of a group, Community Business and Education Leaders, which Mountain West Investment Corporation president Larry Tokarski convened in 2019 to discuss ways to help local families. (Disclosure: Tokarksi is also a co-founder of Salem Reporter.)

Seymour has worked with Eduardo Angulo, a longtime Northgate resident, and Leslye Quevado, who are helping set up councils and identify families interested in getting involved.

Angulo said the councils are a continuation of the work he started decades ago as a founder of the Salem-Keizer Coalition for Equality, a Latino parents advocacy organization that has pushed the Salem-Keizer School District to better serve Spanish-speaking students while training parents on helping their kids.

“We worked very hard at it when nobody wanted to listen and nobody was interested in hearing what farmworking immigrant parents had to say,” Angulo said. “We changed that, but it took us 20 years.”

Now, he said the councils are a vehicle where, school by school, parents and residents can make their needs known and work for change.

Venegas has six children, two of whom attend Hallman. She started going to neighborhood events like Fun Fridays at Northgate Park, which council members put on starting in the summer of 2021 to give families a free, safe way to connect and enjoy their neighborhood.

Venegas said she and other parents built connections at those events that make it easier to look out for neighborhood kids. 

After pandemic closures isolated many families, parents know one another better now and notice if their neighbor’s kids are late to school. They spot graffiti and report or clean it up more quickly.

“Being together in the council helps with our neighborhood,” she said.

The effort has drawn in some neighborhood residents who don’t have kids, including Stephanie Milbourn and Julie Vestal, who live in an apartment building near the park. Both joined the council a few months ago after seeing how the group’s events have brought joy to neighborhood kids and improved safety and community connections.
“Because of doing the Fun Fridays, the police are now coming around more,” Milbourn said, adding that officers have gotten to know the community better.

The council recently put on a holiday event for families at Hallman, which 472 parents and children attended.

The family council idea is now spreading to a second neighborhood, concentrated around Kennedy Elementary School in Keizer.

There, parents and residents have been meeting since the summer, putting on holiday events for school families, advocating for safer walking routes to school and assessing what their neighbors need.

Sirron Peters Berkley, the council’s vice president, is raising four children in a home just a block from the school, two of whom attend Kennedy. He said he’d like to see sidewalks in the neighborhood so kids walking further have a safer route to school, and more activities like sports after school for local kids.
“Kids stay busy, they stay out of trouble,” Peters-Berkley said, with a knowing smile toward his sons as he spoke.

Tammy Kunz, the council’s chair, has lived in the neighborhood for a decade and is part of several other Keizer civic and neighborhood groups.

They have about seven council members currently, she said, and have so far helped provide Thanksgiving meals and gift cards to families in need at the school, and a winter staff appreciation event.

Soon, she said the council will host a neighborhood meet and greet, inviting families to discuss what they’d like to see in the neighborhood.

“Creating a safer space for our folks is my goal,” she said.

Previous coverage

Neighborhood by neighborhood, a new project wants to change the odds for Salem’s kids

New Hallman neighborhood council hopes Fridays at the park will give kids a boost

“Fun Fridays” for families return to Northgate Park July 8

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.