Making Public Service Work From Home

A big idea and a little determination can change communities for the better.

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They succeeded. After eight months of neighbors working together on weekends, Crocker Amazon Park had five benches that each told a story—the creation of man, for example—and a place for neighborhood families to spend time.

Levine says there tends to be more grant money available for groups providing a "concrete service," like starting a program to serve hot lunches at local schools, with which your PTA chapter can help, or to provide transportation services. In St. Paul, Minn., a group of parents and neighborhood leaders saw a need for a new bus system. Meanwhile, the Center for Democracy and Citizenship and the Neighborhood Learning Community, comprising several local organizations, schools, and libraries, were looking for a way to ferry children to extracurricular activities at community centers, parks, libraries, and events organized by groups like the Boys & Girls Club and Girl Scouts. The different groups had the same idea: "What if transportation wasn't a problem?" says Tveit.

Together, they designed a plan for the West Side Circulator. The Center for Democracy and Citizenship secured a grant and the bus started operation in 2003, serving 17 youth organizations at no cost to the riders. Spurred by the clear and immediate difference the West Side Circulator had made in the community, the St. Paul mayor's office took the idea to the other side of town. The East Side Circulator began operating on the same principles in 2007.

Making a difference on your street, in your school, or even in your local government doesn't mean you have to quit your day job. D'Avirro and many of the parents involved with St. Paul's West Side Circulator held down jobs unrelated to the services they were organizing. The biggest hurdle these groups faced wasn't about finding the time. It was getting others to jump on board with their ideas. "There's always going to be a bit of cynicism," says D'Avirro. "Like, 'We've seen this before. It's not going to happen,' or, 'Why should I do this if I already pay taxes?' "

But after people see the impact a group of ordinary citizens can have, others begin to extend their hands. Back in Burlington, for example, a man logged on to Front Porch Forum and reported, to 500 neighbors, a pothole "so big they said they could lose a child in it," says Wood-Lewis. "And the next day, the asphalt truck is out there."

As the neighborhood Web forum caught on, users began to wonder about the people behind the postings. "Instead of living among familiar strangers, people are seeing these posts and now you know somebody," says Wood-Lewis. "It's a fundamental, grass-roots, meaningful change."

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