Willingboro HANDS hosts Fresh Friday events to engage locals in town’s development plans

By Jayden Cohen-Boyce, SJIEP Fellow (2022)

On the first Friday of each month, Willingboro Heart and Soul (HANDS) hosts “Fresh Fridays” events at different locations throughout Willingboro. The evening series provides an opportunity for the community to gather and participate in activities, including basketball, double dutch, and make-and-take crafts. 

Fresh Fridays also serve as a forum for residents to share their stories about their town: what they love about Willingboro, their hopes for the community, and how they can help fulfill those wishes. It’s all part of a nationwide push for greater community participation in local development planning.

Willingboro is one of six towns that have each received $100,000 to support initiatives that promote healthier communities, strengthen local economies, and give residents a say in neighborhood development goals. More than 100 towns and small cities have implemented the two-year Community Heart & Soul engagement model to effect positive change.

In the summer of 2020, the Community Foundation of South Jersey announced the complete list of grant recipients, including Downe Township, Hammonton, Salem, Winslow Township, and Woodbury, as part of the Transform South Jersey collaboration. The foundation has since established endowed funds for these communities to help cover program costs with support from funders, including the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, New Jersey Health Initiatives, PSEG, and the Orton Family Foundation, which created the Community Heart & Soul model.

Organizers also receive coaching and technical assistance to carry out the four phases, namely: Imagine by establishing a local team that involves the community in goal-setting and assessing demographics, Connect by gathering local stories to discover what matters most to residents, Plan by developing action steps in support of common goals, and Act, at which point Heart & Soul statements are adopted by local government and help to shape new policies. 

“The goal is for them to get through the process, set up an action plan, and then start having these locally driven actions that will keep the community rolling along, keeping people involved and engaged. Transforming those communities for the long term,” said Jane Lafleur, Senior Director of Market Development at Community Heart & Soul.

Success looks different for each community, said Lafleur. “What we have seen is that more and more people get engaged, and trust is built between people across towns that may never have spoken to each other.”

Here in Willingboro, what started as virtual gatherings during the pandemic have become a local attraction. Fresh Friday events launched last summer and featured double dutch rounds, with even Deputy Mayor Samantha Whitfield spotted jumping with the best of them. There was even a dunk tank where locals competed for a chance to soak Officer Moore from the Willingboro Police Department. Organizations such as the NAACP and the Southern New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative had tables set up and connected people with resources. 

“These events are key because, a lot of times, people just don’t know what information and what help is available. And when the community comes out to trusted groups and organizations, they are more apt to take that information back, maybe give a call [or] pass it to a friend,” said Laura Waddell, the Health Care Program Director for New Jersey Citizen Action. The organization has also participated in Fresh Friday events to promote services such as health care assistance, housing counseling, financial coaching, and voter registration.

“The second one we did, which was in September, was a back-to-school drive, making sure all the kids have backpacks,” said project coordinator Mika Fields.

“This is very nice for the community; it gets everyone out together,” said Shamika Lennon, a Willingboro employee and resident.

The Willingboro Community Development Corporation (WCDC) is the primary organizer of Willingboro HANDS. The nonprofit has a 50-year history of community development and service dating back to 1969. Founded by ministers from seven Black churches in Burlington City, WCDC, then known as the Community Development Corporation of the Greater Burlington Area, the group provided child care, training, employment, and other resources to unemployed residents. WCDC shut down for about three years after discovering contaminated soil at its original headquarters. It re-opened in 2015 with a new location in Willingboro Township and is now moving full steam ahead with Willingboro HANDS.

Upcoming events include a kickball game at the John F Kennedy Center to touch on the importance of teamwork, said Fields. As they schedule more events, organizers continue looking for community input about Willingboro. So far, one of the major requests is for an event calendar, which Fields is working on, “so we can have more visibility for what we’re doing,” said Fields.

“If you want to help or contribute your thoughts and ideas on what you’d like Willingboro to look like in the next 5, 10, 20 years, we absolutely want to hear it,” said Whitfield. “We want Willingboro as it develops and redevelops to be reflective of the residents. It’s really important that we take care of our own.”