Part III: Working to make Emery County a better place
Green River is one of the smallest towns in Emery County, but the people in Green River have big hearts. They are always willing to give and share what they have with others. One group of caring and sharing individuals can be found at the Epicenter. Just what is an Epicenter you might say. Well it is the center of the seismic activity in an earthquake and Maria Sykes said some people call them the Epic-center, which in this case would mean epic things are happening here and they are.
The Epicenter is filled with young, smart and enthusiastic movers and shakers that call Green River home. Their goal during their time here is to make Green River the best Green River that it can be. Their ideas and unique perspectives feed the many projects the Epicenter has been involved with since its inception a few short years ago.
Chris Lezama came to the Epicenter as an AmericorpVista member last year. When his stint with Americorp was over he decided to stay on in Green River. He listed unfinished projects and future projects as his motivation to stay and push things along. "My interests lie in economic development and developing a housing plan for Green River. We were very successful in evaluating and assessing all of the housing available in Green River. It's a fluid plan and gives us an idea of where Green River stands as far as available housing goes. We take direction from Green River City on the information they would like gathered. The housing plan information is useful for the utilities, schools and the city as a whole," said Lezama.
Lezama is interested in community development and economic development. He is in close contact with Mike McCandless the Emery County Economic Development Director as they explore projects that could be a benefit to Green River. "We are very excited about our business group. We've nicknamed it the potluck group, because everyone brings something different to the table. The group is made up of business people from Green River. We don't drive the group, but we are part of the group and we hold the meetings here at the Epicenter and help the group to address issues and concerns. We meet every other Thursday at 1 p.m. and anyone that's interested is welcome to attend. The largest meeting we had was with 21 people. Hopefully everyone that participates is contributing and gaining something from the experience," said Lezama.
Sykes said, "The group helps to increase the communication in the town so everyone is on the same page. We want to increase tourism and promote Green River as a destination. We've developed the Destination Green River website. The networking at these meetings is very important so these ideas can grow. Green River has specific assets unique to Green River. We want to capitalize and promote what's good about Green River. The day trip brochures were also a product of the potluck group. These brochures show great day trips that begin in Green River and explore the local area. They are an example of the group getting things done."
Lezama said he works at the Green River Community Center along with the Epicenter. Lezama likes the small town feel of Green River and getting to know everyone in the town. Small things can really make a big difference in Green River. I like being a part of things. It's easier to get involved and have a voice in a small town like Green River. I really love the terrain here. It's so different from where I grew up in the Bay area of California. Here instead of being surrounded by an ocean, we're surrounded by an ocean of sand."
Lezama is very humble, but his colleagues call him a thinker and he puts a lot of thought and hard work into everything he does.
"I really think Green River is heading in the right direction. A better Green River means a lot of different things to different people. But, I think we have a real connection and we're working together. A lot can happen when you start working together," said Lezama.
Sykes has a background in architecture. She attended Auburn University with Jack Fornash, another member of the Epicenter team. Sykes views Green River as a rural studio where anything can happen. She feels as a member of society, it's important to share your talents and education for the benefit of others. "I always wanted to do something a little different with my education. Coming to Green River as an Americorps Vista member was different. I came in June of 2009 and was originally going to stay for the summer. But, I'm still here. I feel like I have something to contribute. We started renovating the building we are in now and I attended Melon Days and I thought, wow, I like it here. I felt apart of the community. I've been here for three and a half years now and I think the support that we've received is really what keeps me here. Every project we've been involved with has had tremendous support. We're currently finishing up the first Habitat for Humanity house in Green River. We've had more that 100 volunteers who've helped. That's just one example of the things we can do here. It's very satisfying work. I really like working with people. I really liked the mystique of coming out west. I'm from Alabama and coming out west with all the history was exciting. I've really enjoyed learning about it. My parents are from Louisiana, but I was born in California and have lived in Missouri and southern Alabama. Jack is from Northern Alabama, and northern and southern Alabama are very different. I studied architecture and design. I am very interested in community development. The arts are very important. I think of the art classes I have taken and they have helped shape my personality. One of the things we've been able to help with is bringing in artists and increasing activities that have to do with the arts at the schools and in the afterschool programs. We've had interns from the high school that are interested in photography and illustration help with some of our projects. This gives us an opportunity to share our knowledge and celebrate our talents with the students here.
"The kids here are very interested in art. In one of the surveys that Chris took of the students and their interests they listed art right up there with sports. We think that's great so we are doing what we can to encourage the arts. We want the students to know you can get a degree in the arts or be a designer and come from a small town.
"Another project that's come from the potluck group is the redesign of the billboards at the freeway exits. The design for them is almost complete and they will be fresh and new, we're excited about that. This potluck group has been a way for us to get to know the business owners to and for them to get to know us. It's increased our perspective on what the business owners want for Green River. It's really increased the communication," said Sykes.
Lezama has been impressed with the willingness of everyone in the potluck group to share their talents. Keith Brady has a talent for social media and he's helping to get the word out on Green River. "Green River's kind of isolated, but with social media and I-phones we can broadcast Green River through social media. Like with Ray's Tavern, we can get the word out on the restaurants in the area. The Emery County Travel Bureau is developing an app for Emery County which lists the lodging and restaurants and you can get that information from anywhere with your I-phone. I love this sharing of information and ideas. With the design of the new billboards, Keith brought in his ideas and everyone critiqued them and he implemented the changes," said Lezama.
These volunteers don't know how long they'll be staying in Green River. Sykes said she's always had the number of five years in the back of her mind and she's been here three years now. "As long as people like what we're doing and we feel like we're making an impact here, I can't imagine leaving. I'm proud of what we've done. This summer we had two new volunteers join us and it's like they brought a breath of fresh air. Ashley and Armando came and people are choosing to come here. Nice, smart people. If it's always like that then I want to be here.
"Our next project will be working with weatherization and improvements to single family dwellings with critical home repair. This project is partially funded and we are moving forward. We will start with small projects like roof repairs, installation of grab bars and other improvements that will help the elderly to stay in their homes longer and increase their quality of life. We've already received some applications and we will process more. We will be doing most of the work ourselves with construction managers and also some volunteer groups. Habitat for Humanity also has a program where they will get together and clean up a house. We are going to start with any needy elderly in our community. The microloans will be for $1,500 to get a project completed and then people will pay the loan back. We like to think of this as a hand-up. These improvements will help lower energy bills and make homes safer," said Sykes.
Ashley Ross comes to the group from New York, by way of Colorado. She came on a one month Fellowship and decided to stay. "I love assisting people. Right now I am helping people sign up for HEAT, Angel Tree, food stamps and programs like that. I've also been involved with the fellowship workshops at the high school. I came here the beginning of June as an Americorp Vista member. One of the artists that came presented a workshop on book binding. The artists will hold two day workshops and will work with the schools one day and then host a nighttime program for adults and anyone that might be interested in attending. We've had an embroidery workshop and an illustration workshop. The students there made posters to advertise the Christmas bazaar. We screen printed T-shirts one time too. This gives me an opportunity to use both my background in art and sociology. The students are really interested and have enjoyed the workshops," said Ross. She has made a lot of new friends in her short time in Green River saying she's never lived in a town this small before, but she's loving it.
Lezama said activities at the afterschool program have included cooking classes and art lessons.
Conae Black is the Green River City treasurer and she works closely with the Epicenter. "I am grateful for the Americorp Vista volunteers and the opportunity it gives our community to have these talented young adults come to Green River. I am thankful they have chosen to stay in Green River. We are fortunate to have them here. We are the recipients of their gifts, talents, their youthful exuberance and their experience. They have brought a new perspective to our community. They have made sacrifices to be here. Green River has a ton of potential, sometimes things are stagnant and as a community we can't let that happen. We need to always be growing and improving as a community. These new fresh faces can help push things along and give us a vision of what we can be. They give us hope and with hope comes new ideas and dreams for our town. They are putting their lives on hold as they provide their unique gifts and talents for the benefit of the Green River community," said Black.
The Epicenter team is unique and each one brings something special to the table.
They have become more than co-workers they are friends as they work for the common goal of helping Green River move into the future. The Epicenter volunteers said, "We are a small part of a bigger picture. We are happy, fortunate and grateful to be part of this community. It's a good place to be."