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Pilot program launched to develop community bonding

From left, Dan Stacey, property manager at Ridgeway Court III and IV, Hazel Schweitzer, outreach coordinator, and Lori Duchesneau, D.W. Jones Management Inc. owner, show the grounds of the affordable apartment complex. The company is working on a program to build community feeling among the tenants. Pioneer Photo/Molly Miron

The owners of Ridgeway Court III and IV in Bemidji initiated a program in March they hope will build neighborliness and community attitudes in the apartment complex.

Overseen by United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development and owned by D.W. Jones Management, Inc., the affordable apartments are designed so that tenants pay no more than 30 percent of their income in rent.

In March, D.W. Jones hired Hazel Schweitzer as outreach coordinator for the 48-unit complex, said Lori Duchesneau, owner of D.W. Jones Management.

"There's crime here, and we wanted people to feel more safe," she said.

With a background as a social worker and in employee assistance counseling, Schweitzer spends 20 hours a week at Ridgeway Court, mostly in the evenings, leading children's activities and problem-solving with their parents.

"I'm not here as a counselor per se," Schweitzer said. "I'm here as a coach."

"It's a new concept - it's grass roots," said Dan Stacey, property manager. Stacey has a background in criminal justice, law enforcement and psychology.

"We're trying to build a sense of community, for (the tenants) to be more resilient," he said.

He said the tenants have shown they are open to the community concept. They enjoyed a picnic and meeting police officers, firefighters and Rotary Club members who attended as guests. He said most of the tenants are young parents, 18-25 years old, with young children. One of the areas he said he focuses on with the tenants is independent living skills.

Schweitzer said she schedules children's activities, especially on Friday evenings.

"I like watching movies, I like baking and I like playing Monopoly," said 7-year-old Aaron Lukanen, who lives in the complex with his mother, Irene Gitz, and sisters Samantha, 11, and Kaitlyn, 9.

"I'm bubbling over with young boys right now, 5-13," Schweitzer said.

She said another favorite activity is show and tell. For the event recently, a boy brought a big leech in a makeshift aquarium. He told the other children he caught it in Lake Bemidji.

Schweitzer said she sees the sense of community developing among the children. Some pick up trash around the buildings, and "we have two who have designated themselves the flower police."

Schweitzer said she sees her position as something between housemother and surrogate grandmother to the children.

In the past, people would vandalize the flowerpots, pulling up the plants. The "flower police" boys have prevented that activity.

"We're just starting this to see if it works," said Duchesneau. "It to me seems successful. It may be implemented in other complexes."