Connecting Communities One Step At A Time

Gary, IN through New Brighton, PA

During our time in Chicago, a number of people expressed concern when we told them we’d be running through Gary, Indiana. Almost everyone we passed on the sidewalks through the middle of town smiled and told us to ‘keep on running!’ The challenging aspect of the run was the lack of road shoulders on the outskirts of Gary: in many spots we had to take detours or run next to railroad tracks because the main roads were too dangerous to run on. As we ran towards Michigan City the shoulders only seemed to narrow. We were thankful to eventually find an access point to a nearby trail along the great lake, which we followed into town. A very nice woman who worked at the Indiana Dunes Park stopped by Rex and gave us a map highlighting more bike-friendly roads. Many of the suggested roads still had extremely narrow shoulders, so we were glad to see sidewalks emerge as we reached South Bend.

On election night, we were treated to a great home-cooked meal and stimulating conversation at the home of a friend’s mother. The following morning we headed to the University of Notre Dame, where we met with Timothy Sexton, the Associate Vice President for Public Affairs. Mr. Sexton gave us an overview of the evolving relationship between the University and neighboring South Bend. Under the guidance of President Edward Mallory, the University helped to rebuild a homeless shelter, put pressure on local leaders to focus on revitalizing the adjoining neighborhood, and collaborated on the Robinson Community Learning Center (RCLC), which we later visited. The RCLC offers a variety of educational programs to anyone from the community, from ESL classes and ‘Talk With Your Baby’ for adults to a popular Shakespeare theatre course for youth. Many University students volunteer in the community by tutoring at the RCLC or nearby Pearly school. The University is helping to fund a turbo machinery center; rather than build this facility on some of the many more remote acres owned by the University, a decision was made to locate the factory downtown to create more opportunities for the South Bend community at large.

Rex seemed please to enter Elkhart, the ‘RV capital of the world’. We spoke with Mayor Dick Moore, who eagerly shared a few stories of which he was proud. The Mayor described how the community passed a referendum to fund public schools, which had struggled after the state legislature elected to cap property taxes (commonly a key public education funding source) at 1% of their assessed value. In 2009, the city suffered from 20.3% unemployment, partly because the RV industry was hit particularly hard by the recession. The city is now down to 4-5% unemployment. Catalyzed by the revitalization of the historic Lerner Theater, the downtown has experienced impressive growth, with the city looking to build an apartment complex to encourage further downtown residents. We were fortunate enough to be given a tour of the beautiful Lerner by manager David Smith.

After passing through Fort Wayne, we reached Ohio, our 8th state. Mayor Lydia Mihalik invited us to her favorite coffee shop, and between events on Veterans Day spent time explaining the community’s economy and history.  A number of large companies call this region home, including Marathon Oil, MPLX, Cooper Tires, Whirlpool, and others.  Despite these strong companies the town has struggled to attract people in manufacturing and with the ‘soft skills’ to fill the many available jobs.  In response, some schools and companies in the region are offering training programs to fill this need. 

In Akron, we met with Principal Larry Johnson Jr of the city’s STEM High School. The High School was started following the success of a STEM middle school opened in 2009 and is located on the University of Akron campus. These schools aim to educate students at the secondary level, prepare them for higher education studies at the University, and provide them with skills to gain employment in Akron. The desire to provide the education and opportunity to keep young people in the area reflects much of what we had seen across America (namely, that many young people go off to college and do not return to the area until retirement, if ever), and we were excited to see such a unique collaboration between the city, its citizens, and local businesses.  We had a great time touring the classes and speaking with many of the teachers.

We later spoke with Police Captain Daniel Zampelli, who told us about neighborhood response teams and a gun reduction violence team, which aims to identify individuals illegally possessing guns. The Akron Police Department was one of the first to implement training for officers to work with citizens needing assistance who suffer from mental health issues. The lack of a system to effectively handle and treat those with mental illness has been brought up in many conversations throughout our journey and is an issue we plan to seriously investigate.

We were very grateful to spend some time working out and enjoying a warm shower at the New Brighton YMCA during our first night in Pennsylvania. The temperatures began falling that evening and the next day as we ran into Pittsburgh, where we quickly encountered some of the warmest folks we’d met thus far.