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  • Building bridges taken literally by these students

    What started as a classroom assignment to identify a community problem and find a solution for it has made a real difference in Tucson’s Naylor Neighborhood. On Dec. 15 Pima County District 2 Supervisor Ramón Valadez served as emcee for a ribbon-cutting celebration on a new footbridge over the wash running through Swan Wash at Belvedere Avenue designed and built thanks to the effort and persistence of four students.

    The $229,000 project was funded by voter-approved Pima County Neighborhood Reinvestment bond funds. In addition to the pedestrian bridge, the project included 500 feet of new sidewalks, a new speed table crossing and water harvesting basins in Swan Park. 
    Pedestrian bridge dedication
    “It is a true example of the fact that people can always make a difference,” Valadez said of the project. “It shows that young people can lead when given the opportunity and that their determination, patience and creativity can make their community better.”

    The configuration of the playing fields on the campus of Roberts-Naylor K-8 School blocks the wash, creating serious flooding problems at that spot every time it rains. The enormous pond forced pedestrians to make a choice: wade through the water or walk to the nearest dry crossing points on Columbus Boulevard or Swan Road, something that could take up to ten minutes. It frequently caused students at Roberts-Naylor and nearby Changemaker High School to be late for class and made it difficult for neighbors to access nearby businesses and public transportation. 

    Alejandra Lopez-Ortega lives in the Naylor neighborhood. She was a sophomore at Changemaker in 2014 when she hit on the idea of building a bridge over the wash while struggling to brainstorm a project for “Make a Difference Day” during her Service Learning class taught by Nicole Snook.

    “I really didn’t have anything in mind,” Lopez-Ortega said. “It was raining that day and I realized that was a problem and that it would make a difference in the students’ lives. First I made a proposal for a small, wooden bridge that we could build in the Maker Space workshop here [at Changemaker.] I told Ms. Snook and she suggested I contact Lowe’s or Home Depot to see if they’d be willing to donate some supplies.”

    To assist her, Lopez-Ortega enlisted the aid of three classmates, Laynah Varmun, Adilene Rivera and Victoria Alonzo. Snook first suggested they seek out funding from companies such as Lowe’s, Home Depot or Ace Hardware, but they found no takers. They worried they might have to scrap the project.

    After additional research, it became apparent that the problem was far more complex and would require more than a handmade, do-it-yourself crossing. There were zoning considerations, permits to obtain, designs to be submitted and a public outreach effort to undertake, among others.

    “In the process, we were learning all this stuff because I didn’t know we had to ask the City to do this. I learned we needed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and make ramps for people in wheelchairs and that kind of stuff. It made me more aware of what all goes into this kind of project,” Lopez-Ortega said.

    The project’s fortunes improved later that year when word came that Pima County had money left over from the 2004 Bond Election and the Community Development and Neighborhood Conservation Department (CDNC) was taking proposals for neighborhood reinvestment funds. 

    While developing their proposal to CDNC, Snook and her students discovered a 2009 study by the Drachman Institute that cited a need for a bridge over the wash. They used that as the basis for their proposal. 

    Neighbors initially express skepticism about the plan, citing previous public works projects that failed to pan out or meet expectations.

    “There was a lot of disillusionment in the neighborhood and we had to get them used to the idea that we wanted to do this and we meant it,” Snook said. “We needed their support but they didn’t believe we’d come through.”
    Pedestrian bridge
    Undaunted, the group -- with help from the Living Streets Alliance -- held a series of community meetings to seek input from residents and other stakeholders, discuss the possibilities and generate enthusiasm. One gathering included a walking tour of the proposed site and the park. Other outreach efforts included door-to-door canvassing and a flyer campaign. Eventually, the team collected sufficient petition signatures to make the project eligible for consideration for neighborhood reinvestment funding. With their community behind them, the students also made an impression with Tucson City Council Ward 5 Council Member Richard Fimbres and Supervisor Valadez, who became major proponents of the proposal to their respective governments.

    The time from conception to construction spanned nearly three years, with contractors breaking ground this past October. In the interim, the girls graduated. But even after receiving their diplomas, the four and their former instructor kept pushing the project forward.

    “Right now it seems like it all happened too fast, because in the process we kept doing stuff. We didn’t just sit there and wait. We created a presentation for public meetings and fundraising efforts,” Lopez-Ortega said.

    They formed a strong team with each member playing to her strengths. Lopez-Ortega described herself as the organizer and planner and set the agenda.

    “Laynah was the numbers person and Adilene and Victoria were the ‘happy talkers’ who could really sell it. I didn’t tell them what to do. It just all fell into place.”

    Their outreach efforts took the quartet far outside the neighborhood to statewide and national gatherings where they spoke about their project and Changemaker’s service learning curriculum, which connects academics to public engagement. As the project changed and grew, so did the students’ understanding of the reciprocal relationship between citizens and government. They also developed skills that will serve them well as they venture out into the world, from letter writing and public speaking to an understanding of public policy, how it’s made and the importance of achieving consensus.

    “What we came to learn very quickly was the multi-faceted nature of government and who ultimately is in charge of that space. It goes all the way to the federal level,” Snook said.

    “We learned it was a long process and how much effort it takes,” Lopez-Ortega added. “Before this project, we would just see public improvements pop up, but we didn’t know what the process was or who was working on it.”

    The project came in under budget and the leftover money was put toward improvements to Swan Park, including the construction of water harvesting features in the park designed by the Changemaker team. Dozens of trees from the City of Tucson's Trees for Tucson program and other landscaping are still to come, intended to mitigate erosion and other effects of flooding in the area. Post-and-cable fencing will also go in to discourage off-road vehicle traffic that damages the less-developed sections of the park.

    “The lesson I take away from all of this is that if you push hard enough for what you want to do and not let people discourage you, that it is possible to make a change for the better,” Lopez-Ortega said. “I’m really proud because I get to show my family, and I’m not sure they believed me, but I get to show them this. And it also makes me happy because I made a change in my community. I hear a lot of people talk about change and sometimes I don’t see the change but now that I’ve done that kind of work I know it can happen. It’s kind of a big deal for me.”
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