Sept. 13, 2021 -- When Heights High students and recent graduates joined with youth leaders to freshen up the lawns of our community’s seniors, everyone benefitted: The teens learned landscaping skills and practiced professional communication, neighborhood yards were beautified, and, in a case you’ll hear about below, one woman’s slide into depression was averted.
The WAVE: We’re A Village of Efficacy program is the brainchild of community leaders Steve Walker and Jerod Johnson. The two have worked together for years with Heights area children and teens, teaching, mentoring, leading, helping them express themselves, and guiding them as they improve both their neighborhoods and their lives.
This particular program, Bridging the Gap, was a partnership with the City of Cleveland Heights. Office on Aging Supervisor Amy Jenkins identified elderly homeowners in need of yard work while Parks & Recreation Supervisor Andre Spencer and Director Joe McCrae facilitated the use of Community Development Block Grant funds to purchase tools, equipment and plants. The City also offered storage space in between jobs.
Various staff at Heights High helped identify the young men and women who would benefit from participating. Some came from the Credit Recovery Program, where Mr. Walker works, some were sent by wrestling coach Willie Newton, and some were identified by Dr. Carmen Daniels who runs Gear Up to New Heights and is the College Now counselor at the high school. In all, 24 young people rehabilitated the yards of eight different homes throughout the Heights.
Because Mr. Walker and Mr. Johnson wanted the students to experience landscape work from start to finish, they first met with homeowners for an evaluation of their space and to hear their preferences, whether that be favorite colors and flowers, how they hoped to use their space or specific safety concerns. “It was crucial to get their input,” said Mr. Walker, “but we also wanted to promote the social-emotional pieces for the kids. Those conversations helped them practice communication, self-confidence, and leadership.” The students would then craft a design and go shopping at Home Depot for necessary materials. On Fridays, a minimum of six students would spend between four and eight hours at a residence.
For Barbara Taylor, the experience was transformative. Like so many, she described the past year and a half as “long, depressing and horrible.” She hired a landscaper to fix up her long-neglected yard, but once he was paid upfront, he never returned. “I can’t describe how despondent I was. I felt depressed every time I looked out the window.”
She called the Office on Aging and they recommended the WAVE group. “Within a week, they were here. These kids were just astounding.” The one thing she wanted to keep was the overgrown rose bush her mother had planted at that property forty years ago. “Then they brought another to put next to it, and I nearly cried. When these guys came over, it was like the heavens opened up. They were such cool kids and did such a good job.”
Mr. Johnson and Mr. Walker hope to expand the program to include more homes and to provide longer-term maintenance care. Mr. Johnson mentioned the possibility of making the program year-round with leaf raking and snow shoveling in the off-season.
Both youth leaders were proud of how the program broke down generational barriers, hence the name Bridging the Gap. So often the elderly fear young people while teens may ignore or dismiss the plight of the elderly. This experience allowed them to get to know each other and interact on something positive.
There was one client who shocked the young people when they learned she was 92 years old. “One of our young men said, ‘When I found out she was 92, that made it all the more worth it.’”