BELLEVILLE — If not for the Franklin Neighborhood Community Association, Keresten Bobby and her five siblings would not have gone to summer camp, gotten homework help or tried activities such as yoga or Pinewood Derby.
The nonprofit group compelled Keresten, 18, to serve with the Belleville AmeriCorps.
"She just wants to give back," said Keresten's mom, Stacey Bobby.
For two decades, the association has helped the Bobby family and countless others in the Franklin Neighborhood, turning a deteriorating area into a thriving community.
Al Wunderlich, executive director of the association for the past 18 years, said organizers figured, soon after it formed in November 1992, the best thing they could do for the area was give children positive things to do.
"At some point, to really make any significant impact that will withstand the test of time, you have to start with kids," said Wunderlich, 81.
Teachers saw drug deals
About 20 years ago, when DeLisa Smith was in fifth-grade, Franklin Elementary School was surrounded by vacant and dilapidated houses built on flood ground.
Teachers peered out windows and witnessed drug deals. Paint fumes blew through the school from an auto body shop next door. There was no playground and no trees for shade during recess.
Members of St. Paul United Church of Christ and Franklin School met to build a collaboration with city officials and residents to address these issues.
"We saw our church neighborhood really changing before our eyes," said Mayor Mark Eckert, who was president of the church's council at the time. "We knew that if the core of our city kept deteriorating or died, Belleville would not have a bright future."
Eckert became the association's first executive director. He also led the association's first group of student Problem Solvers, formed to empower kids to bring change.
Smith, now 33, was part of the team of Problem Solvers that came up with the idea to build a playground -- now Hough Park -- in the empty field behind the school.
Without the association, Smith believes more of her peers would have taken paths in life that led to dropouts, drugs and jail. Smith went on to earn a master's degree in human resource management.
"My mom, a single mom, was so grateful my brother and I had something to do that was positive, especially during the summertime," Smith said.
But Smith said one of the association's significant contributions is getting families involved. Smith's mom was a parent volunteer and her stepfather was a basketball coach at the school.
Smith's family continues to live in the Franklin Neighborhood and her 4-year-old son is on his way to kindergarten at Franklin School.
"My son and I walk the bike trail and I tell him, 'Mommy and her friends helped build this park.' He thinks it's so cool."
Dedication of one, and many
Brian Mentzer, president of the association and assistant superintendent of Belleville District 201, said the association was successful because Wunderlich decided to make the association his life's work -- after retirement, that is.
"He worked in the business world (as an accountant with Anheuser-Busch) and was very successful ... but I think the real success in his life started when this organization started," Mentzer said.
"And if you ask the people that know him ... what it is that defines Al Wunderlich, it's nothing that happened before he retired. It's everything that happened after he did."
Wunderlich doesn't like taking credit, but he brings consistency, organization and legitimacy to the program. He has the respect of the community and when he calls for help, people listen, Mentzer said.
But this was not always the case.
"I think a lot of people doubted we could do anything," Wunderlich said. "This was a bad neighborhood. We had to show them it was a success."
Eckert said that in the early years, he practically lived in the Franklin office, working with recruited volunteers to pick up truckloads of food donations, make lunch for summer camp and apply for grants that paid for programs such as AmeriCorps.
Volunteers walked door to door to survey families about their needs and went from there.
Paul Klingler, a former alderman and retired carpenter, and other union laborers, donated their time to fix up what still serves as the association's office and computer lab.
"To make this thing go, it took a lot of people," Eckert said.
Given time, momentum built as the group yielded results. It became easier to raise money because residents and businesses trusted what the group could do.
The association serves as a model for community collaboration for other neighborhood groups. It's what city officials had in mind when they kicked off the Belleville Neighborhood Partnership program this year, organizing the city into 13 zones to empower residents to solve problems from the ground up.
Franklin Neighborhood is part of Zone A and will work with other associations in the zone.
Jim Schneider, the city's director of parks and recreation and director of human resources, training and development, said he hopes to see duplication of Franklin's partnership model across the city.
Schneider said, for example, the 17th Street neighborhood group, has a summer camp but also programs unique to its residents.
"Certainly, Franklin's success is a catalyst for what they're doing over there, but each zone will have different needs and do different things," Schneider said. "They might not look exactly like Franklin but we would love to see what they do crop up all over town."
Wunderlich believes the association owes its success to its dedicated volunteers, past and present.
The association cultivated partnerships throughout the city, including Franklin School staff, students at Lindenwood University and an ongoing relationship with AmeriCorps.
There are currently two AmeriCorps volunteer coordinators who staff the association office. Four days a week, Ashley Nail and Maddy Ligon coordinate after-school enrichment programs for students, running six-week courses on activities such as yoga, weird science, cooking, sewing and Pinewood Derby.
Best of all, former Franklin School students often become the next cycle of volunteers.
"So many leave and come back to say bye to Mr. W before they leave for college," Nail said. "Others come and do programs with us or work as counselors at summer camp."
Wunderlich said he'll keep working with the association as long as he can. He's personally driven by his faith to serve others: "If we can't help people, why are we here?"
Fill the gaps
Wunderlich said the association continues to help fill the gaps between what families need and what the school cannot provide.
Vicki Flath, a first-grade teacher at Franklin School, said she often sends students to the association office across the street when they show up at school without a coat or say they couldn't do their homework because they don't have crayons at home.
The majority of students at the school come from low-income families or live with single parents. They come from homes where a parent might not be home at night to help with homework and families don't have time or money to go on summer vacations.
The area remains a high poverty area, but as the community strengthened, there is less resident turnover and more families have moved in.
Flath said the school tries to build an atmosphere where students don't judge each other for what they lack.
"We're a family and we'll help you get what you need," Flath tells students. "We're all in the same boat."
Flath said the association steps in to make teachers' jobs easier.
For example, the school does not have the capacity to provide tutoring, so the association organized a daily Homework Club that takes place an hour before school starts. Volunteers help students who might not have space to do homework at home or whose parents can't answer all their questions.
In the association's early years, Wunderlich donated a building adjacent to the association office and turned it into a computer lab since Franklin School did not have its own.
Also early on, organizers started a summer camp to provide students with continual education during the summer, Flath said.
"If we didn't have the association, these kids would not have these opportunities," Flath said. "It's definitely made our school what it is."
For the past decade, the state has honored Franklin School with the Spotlight Schools Award, which recognizes "high-poverty, high-performing schools that are beating the odds by overcoming the achievement gap."
Franklin School Principal Jim Slater said he often hears from parents when they need to move to a new home.
"They ask, 'Is this new address still in Franklin School?'" Slater said. "They want to stay here because of what the association brought to the table."
'It's the best bargain in town'
Wunderlich also believes things worked because the association limited its scope to the Franklin Neighborhood -- a 13-square block that stretches northwest from the Public Square downtown.
"We identified that this is the area we want to work in," Wunderlich said. "It irritated a lot of people they couldn't be part of it, but we didn't bite off more than we can chew."
The association spends about $75,000 annually, mostly from private donations, to pay for its programs, Wunderlich said. The association started with some help from grants but can no longer rely on them in the current economy.
The organization's highest expense is $30,000 for summer camp for more than 100 kids. Each child pays $40 for eight weeks of camp that includes an academic element but also brings them on trips to places like the zoo.
"It's the best bargain in town," Wunderlich said. "If I ever eliminated summer camp, I'd have a riot here."
The association also helps families with needs such as health care, food, rent and bills.
"Whatever it may be, it's supporting the families to the best of our ability," Wunderlich said.
As much as possible, the association uses resources within its own boundaries.
There aren't many businesses in the area, so that means that if the association needs more books, coats or hygiene supplies, Wunderlich looks to local churches or other service groups for help.
Wunderlich said it took 20 years for the association to build quality programs and establish necessary partnerships. He's happy with the way things are.
There are enough programs to accommodate all kids who want to participate, Wunderlich said, so expansion is not a goal.
"What we do now is meet the basic needs of the neighborhood," Wunderlich said. "We've developed the best programs we can. We'll just keep doing what we're doing, but do it well and improve on it."
Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/BNDBelleville.