WASILLA— Families for the Improvement of Safety and Health or, “The Williwaw Project” recently received funding for a new park, the first ever in the neighborhood’s history.
Last month, the Mat-Su Trails and Parks Foundation awarded $40,000 to build the park. It hasn’t quite been a full year since grassroots nonprofit first. The progress still amazes co-founder president Abraham Sayen, even after the land has been cleared and the park will soon be a reality.
“We’re pulling it off somehow,” Sayen said.
He’s lived in this area most of his life and knows its struggles with crime and addiction, Sayen said. But most of all, he said that he knows the heart of this neighborhood is still family and there are more people excited for the park and what it represents than there are naysayers.
“There’s more people fighting for what we’re doing,” Sayen said.
This $40,000 does call for a $20,000 match from F.I.S.H. and they’ve raised almost half. They also received $5,000 from their community partners, the Wasilla Sunrise Rotary who’ve been working closely with the group, supporting them and advocating for them early on.
“Honestly, this was an emotional moment for all of us,” Wes Hoskins, Executive Director of the Mat-Su Trails and Parks Foundation stated in a press release. “F.I.S.H. is an incredibly deserving organization. These are members of a local community who have come together to reclaim their community and create a park for kids. Once built, the new park will be a nearby play area for school-age children, who will no longer need to walk three miles down the busy Bogard road to access the Newcomb park in downtown Wasilla. They’ll have their own park, in their own neighborhood.”
Over the past year, F.I.S.H. has been working to turn this park into a reality for the kids of Williwaw. They acquired a parcel of land donated by the Matanuska Susitna Borough. They’ve also gained the support of Coffman Engineers, local contractors who committed to lending their time, equipment and expertise.
The park will stand on a .3 acre lot and will feature amenities like a pavilion; playground equipment, including swings and slides, barbeque pits, and a community garden. They’ve held numerous community events/fundraisers to raise money for the park.
This park represents the culmination of F.I.S.H.’s efforts, their first major and perhaps most significant project that signifies their continued efforts to make things better across the neighbored.
“It’s rewarding. It’s crazy rewarding,” Sayen said.
About 20 “go-to” volunteers, mostly from the neighborhood help F.I.S.H. operations and projects.
“We’re growing every day,” Sayen said.
They also have help from the surrounding community including people in recovery who can have their time counted towards community service hours, according to Sayen. Sitting inside one of the newest additions to the neighborhood, Sayen Family Bookkeeping & Tax Service, he said that most of his time is spent between work the office and his efforts to get the park built with Rachel Sayen Lambert, co-founder of F.I.S.H.
“It’s a completely different lifestyle change. Everything’s been different,” Sayen said.
Sayen mentioned a man who still actively helps out, even though he’s graduated from treatment and no longer needs any community service hours.
“We’re breaking ground,” Sayen said.
Williwaw has a notorious reputation amongst most of the Valley. Lambert Sayen said it’s “historically famous as being the hood of Wasilla.” F.I.S.H. aims to clean up that reputation by with literal steps with symbol implications.
“We decided as a group of neighbors to redefine the word community as one of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals, rather than just a group of people living in the same place. And with that new vision of our community, we decided to build our kids a park,” Lambert Sayen said.
They’ve already made collective neighborhood events like holiday parties with games and activity for the kids and community clean up-days traditions. Sayen said that owner of Bouncing Bears has donated bounce houses for events before.
The park will become a major hub for future activities. Beatification is one of the major drivers behind F.I.S.H., with roots in the “broken window theory,” an academic theory proposed by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982 that used broken windows as a metaphor for the crime disorders of struggling neighborhoods.
“It’s just slowly remodeling the neighborhood one yard at a time. We’re fixing one window at a time,” Sayen said.
Volunteers continue to offer their time around the neighborhood to it from the inside it out, encouraging a feelings of ownership and pride to be a collection of neighbors that want to take care of the neighborhood, according to Sayen. He said they helped improve numerous Williwaw residents’ lawns and cleared at least 50 trees this summer.
Lambert Sayen said that she feels like they’ve made tremendous headway and the stigma is dissolving, giving way to a new trend with familiar roots, that “old school” way of people in a neighborhood waving at each other, knowing everyone’s names.
After the land was all cleared thanks to help from people like Danie Jensen who donated her heavy equipment for the stump removal, many Williwaw residents got free firewood and the remains were dumped in a big hole and burnt for two days. Numerous people across the neighborhood took shifts to keep an eye on the controlled burn, according to Lambert Sayen.
“Lots of community members out there, sitting in lawn chairs watching that fire with water jugs and everything… people dropping off coffee to keep them awake,” Lambert Sayen said.
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at firstname.lastname@example.org