A St. Cloud-area mobile home park is showing that it is possible to turn around a park for the better, but it requires the cooperation of concerned citizens and most importantly, the park owner.
At Bel Clare Estates, in the rural outskirts of St. Cloud, about a dozen kids of all ages wait impatiently for their youth programming building to open. They're pounding against the window, pulling the door knob, and yelling to be let in.
Elias Rodriguez, a high school junior, said this is the typical early bird crowd.
"The door handle is wobbly now [from] so much of kids banging on the doors," Rodriguez said. "They're excited to come here. They're anxious. They want to have fun."
The kids are gathering for their twice-weekly clubhouse meeting through a mentorship program with the nonprofit Big Brothers Big Sisters. Coordinators with the organization began to visit Bel Clare Estates about five years ago. Several community members expressed concern over the welfare of the 450 or so children living at the mobile home park.
The park -- with about 240 homes -- is considered its own township. Public transportation isn't available either, which builds a sense of isolation, according to Nathan Sindt with Big Brothers Big Sisters. He said this program originally started with a few volunteers playing sports with kids. They wanted to prevent them from getting wrapped up with larger problems at the park.
"There were some gang problems," Sindt said. "There were problems with drugs, alcohol, delinquency with the kids themselves, a lot of fights on the bus. The busing was pretty dangerous for a lot of kids at that time."
Sindt said the mobile home park has a diverse population.
"That, inevitably over the years, has led to flare up and some racial tension within the community both with the youth and with families," he said.
In the last three years, the program has become more structured. A new building for youth programming has a small computer lab and an indoor gym. Volunteers, mostly college students, are paired with children as mentors. Elias Rodriguez said the program teaches teens how to be leaders and good role models for the younger kids. He said now fewer of his peers are getting into trouble. Instead, mentors are inspiring them to do well in school so they could go to college.
"Before it was, 'What? What's college? What is it?' After it influenced a lot of us, and it gave us more of an eye opening, you know, what you need to do, what is college, what is it for, why do you need it," Rodriguez said.
Building trust and getting kids and parents involved with the program didn't happen overnight. Nathan Sindt said 15 kids showed up on the first day of clubhouse, but now as many as 65 will show up each night.
Organizers say help from the mobile home park owner is key to the program's success. Owner Marty Bell of Minneapolis said he wanted to turn around the park.
"We do care about the park," Bell said. "It's a jewel. It really is and we think we can make it shine brightly."
Bell said ever since he took over the park's management about two years ago, he's made several improvements; from fixing the park's night street lights to building safe playgrounds to adding more speed bumps and stops signs. He also removed dilapidated abandoned trailers from the park. Bell said he wants to provide an affordable, safe place so people are proud of where they live.
"If you don't have that pride of ownership, you don't create that sense of community, you don't create safety for people, you can never have that pride of ownership and you can never have that quality property," he said.
Bel Clare Estates is still fighting off poor public perception from the surrounding area, fueled by occasional drug busts each year. But the county sheriff said he gets about half the calls he used to now that this youth program is in place.
These problems at the park overshadow the positive changes, according to Nathan Sindt. He said participation keeps going up each year and children are learning how to express themselves in healthy ways.
"That's filtered to the parents, and that's led to less argument, disagreement, discord amongst neighbors within the community, within different ethnic groups and social groups," he said.
Sindt said once a month, parents join these clubhouse meetings with their children. He said the number of parents who participate is also going up.
Park owner Marty Bell and Big Brothers Big Sisters are not doing this endeavor alone. Several organizations, such as The Boys and Girls Club, Boys Scouts, Girl Scouts, Anna Marie's Alliance, and Tri Cap, also collaborate in other areas. And a private bus company takes children to meet with kids from other mobile home parks.
This summer, The University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners and the 4H program taught kids how to grow their own produce at the mobile home park's new vegetable garden.
Sindt said Big Brothers Big Sisters wants to expand this on-site mentorship program to other mobile home parks. He said the program could succeed elsewhere if owners and community members are willing to invest in creating a better environment for low-income children.