HERMISTON - Imagine a community where no child lives in fear of child abuse, drug abuse, or alcohol abuse.

A place where parents and children spend more time together, where families know most everyone in their neighborhoods, where everyone - rich or poor, white, black or brown - feels they play an important part in building a strong community from which everyone benefits - especially the children.

Imagining the future of the city of Hermiston is a way to identify what action people in the community can take to encourage positive, purposeful change that helps prevent child abuse. It's part of the concept behind Free to Grow, a project funded through a grant to the Umatilla/Morrow County Head Start program that aims to strengthen families and the communities in which they live, said Shannon Jackson, coordinator of the Free to Grow project.

By imagining what we want the community to become, we can plot which route to follow to get us to that place, Jackson said.

"It's an opportunity to find approaches that help create a healthy community," she said. "The idea is that problems like child abuse and substance abuse and other negative behaviors will resolve themselves once the community becomes healthy."

Hermiston is one of only 16 communities in the nation chosen by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to receive a Free to Grow grant, Jackson said. It was chosen not only because it's a place where children grow up surrounded by poverty and high-risk behaviors related to drug abuse, but also because it's a community with a history of coming together to solve problems and create positive change.

"Hermiston has a lot of really great strengths," she said. "There's a lot of potential here to prevent substance abuse and child maltreatment by helping families and the community as a whole become strong."

Community revitalization is one focus of the Free to Grow project, said Hermiston police chief Daniel Coulombe, who serves on the project's board of directors. By going through one neighborhood at a time and focusing on addressing chronic crime problems, cleaning up graffiti, removing weeds and trash and helping low-income and elderly people with home repairs, the atmosphere throughout the entire neighborhood improves. And as each neighborhood brightens, the whole community begins to shine.

"We're trying to identify issues that affect the quality of life in Hermiston," he said.

Among the activities funded through the Free to Grow grant is leadership training for people who want to take an active role in shaping the future of Hermiston. Graduates of the program include a group of Hispanic volunteers who hope to use their new leadership skills and experience to pursue changes in the community that support families and encourage positive life choices, Jackson said.

And for the past year, Head Start staff and volunteers have been assembling groups of people - neighbors, friends, service clubs, churches, business managers and staff - to serve as focus groups to help identify ways Hermiston can achieve the goal of protecting and supporting children by strengthening familes and the community as a whole. The brainstorming sessions yielded ideas such as outreach programs for parents, after-school programs for children, a health center for low-income families, a legal aid center for Hispanics, community clean-up programs and a community center where people of all ages can spend time together in activities that could range from exercise classes and sports to creating art.

The community center idea is one of the most popular and exciting recommendations generated by the focus groups, said Tammy Ashbeck, principal of West Park Elementary School and a member of the Free to Grow board of directors, which also includes representatives from social service agencies, businesses, health care and Hermiston police.

"The focus groups have been able to raise concerns and propose solutions," Ashbeck said. "The important thing is to work together. If we're all going in different directions, we can't build the momentum that we can if we're all working together to make something happen."

To learn more about the Free to Grow project, take part in leadership training or convene a focus group, contact Shannon Jackson at Umatilla/Morrow County Head Start at 564-6878.

Reporter Kasia Pierzga can be reached at 1-800-522-0255 (ext. 1-309 after hours) or e-mail: kpierzga@eastoregonian.com.

Advisory team

•Tammy Ashbeck, West Park Elementary School, 667-6811.

•Connie Caplinger, Umatilla County, Department of Health and Human Services, 278-5486.

•Dan Coulombe, Hermiston Police Department, 667-5519.

•Shelley Ena, Umatilla County, Department of Health and Human Services, 278-6291.

•Craig Hall-Cutting, United Methodist Church, 567-3002.

•Jim Ortiz, Oregon Department of Human Services Seniors and People with Disabilities, 481-9482, ext. 227;

•Becky Steams, Sunset Elementary, 667-6749

•Stan Stradley, Housing Authority of the County of Umatilla, 567-3241;

•Cathy Wamsley, Umatilla-Morrow Head Start, 564-6878.

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