By CHRISTINA DURAN
On a bright Saturday morning, a small crowd gathers around a white truck parked in front of the House of Neighborly Services. Standing with his back to the truck’s South Tucson logo, Lorenzo Gonzalez hands out boxes of spray paint, plastic bags full of sponges, rags, sandpaper, and buckets brimming with water. He gives quick instructions to the crowd.
“Remember, do not paint the grout,” Gonzalez yells. “I’ll be coming around to each of the frames if anyone needs anything. Thank you!”
Groups of three to four people will paint the frames of the iconic South Tucson murals that were created by Las Artes, an arts education program for high school dropouts.
This September event is just one of many efforts undertaken by the Healthy South Tucson coalition as part of a larger set of goals.
Healthy South Tucson is a coalition of organizations from South Tucson, Tucson, and Pima County that grew out of the Weed and Seed Program. Though there are 33 different organizations involved, the oldest members are Primavera Foundation, House of Neighborly Services, and Gospel Rescue Mission.
Last year, the coalition reevaluated after a time of uncertainty.
“It was kind of in limbo,” says Gonzalez, city planner for South Tucson and president of Healthy South Tucson. “There were questions about leadership.”
Those questions were answered when members elected a president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer. At the meeting last year, Healthy South Tucson adopted a new strategic plan.
“We decided to strengthen it…and to try to come up with a mission and a vision of where we wanted it to go,” says Gonzalez. “We started to tackle problems that existed and somewhere in there it became Healthy South Tucson.”
The coalition’s mission encompasses all aspects of building a healthy community, but members of the coalition find it difficult to define the group’s primary goal.
Sitting in a quiet conference room in the South Tucson city hall, Gonzalez speaks frankly. “I think some of the things we have identified might be a little too much to handle at this point, but eventually that’s what we want to get to.”
Like Gonzalez, Kerri Lopez, director of House of Neighborly Services and vice-president of Healthy South Tucson, finds the number of goals overwhelming.
“Sometimes it feels like we kind of get distracted by all the components of health and think we have to tackle all of them in order to be a health coalition,” Lopez says.
“But really, we can tackle one thing and let it bleed into all the areas of health.”
Gonzalez agrees and says the strategic plan was a way for the coalition to find its voice.
For now, it continues to work on the projects at hand which include not only these clean-ups, but their annual health fair and back-to-school fair.
In 2012 the coalition, originally under the name Healthy Habits, launched its first ever health fair. In 2014, it began the Back-to-School Fair to provide children with “the things they need like shoes and underwear and school supplies,” Gonzalez says.
Like other organizations, money is always a factor.
The two annual fairs are funded through donations and fundraising, as are many of the coalition’s other projects.
For this September clean-up, the Gospel Rescue Mission donated $200 from their outreach budget for paint and other supplies, says Suzanne Williams, director of Community Ministries and Volunteering at the Gospel Rescue Mission.
While funding is important, members want to focus on building volunteer involvement.
As representatives from Gospel Rescue Mission, Tucson Urban League, Primavera, House of Neighborly Services, and the City of South Tucson (represented by Gonzalez) head to the murals, only a few locals show up to help out.
Gonzalez drives carefully with a ladder jutting out of the trunk, trying not to jostle the water buckets. He sighs, shaking his head before he says, “You see, that’s the problem. Trying to get people to come and to care about their city.”
The coalition members hope residents will see the changes in their community and want to contribute to the effort.
“If you start to clean up and you start to maintain it then I think you’re going to change the image,” Gonzalez says. “You change the psychology.”
In the meantime, the coalition members will continue to publish digital newsletters and engage the community through social media and their website.
Gonzalez heads back to the House of Neighborly Services with black trash bags clanging from the sound of empty spray cans, dirty rags and sponges.
Seven of the ten frames were painted, more than expected. Some of the frames have uneven streaks of yellow paint, with the drips of clumped paint visible at close range.
But as Gonzalez says, “We do what we can.”