“Please, Have A Seat!” NI unveiled its “Please, Have A Seat!” project in Miller Beach on August 24th, witnessed by funders, community leaders and elected officials. Funded through grants by the John S. and James L. Knight fund of Legacy Foundation, Diocese of Gary, NIPSCO and local residents, it is the second of its kind in the region to strategically place multiple, permanent, park-style benches on private property to encourage public use.

Barry Tyler, Jr., Community Initiatives Officer of Legacy Foundation commented, “The Knight Foundation’s purpose is to inspire, inform and engage communities, which is exactly what I think these benches will do by giving people a place to come together and engage in conversation about things going on in their community.”

This method of building neighborhoods, supported by months of positive feedback from the pilot program in East Chicago, convinced funders and community leaders that the program works. Tyrone Spann, Director of Programming of Foundations of East Chicago, commented on the success NI had in marketing the benches saying, “We were really amazed at the number of individuals who not only agreed to have these benches, but the number who are on the waiting list willing to do so in the future. We are happy to have played a small part in getting this program together and hoping that it will grow around the community and in the nation as well.”

Gary’s state representative Charlie Brown, stated, “This is an interesting project. The concept of getting people to be neighborly and have conversations is something that has been lost since my generation. In my day, it was common that people would sit out front and talk to their neighbors. This is truly a means of blending a neighborhood and getting people to understand and appreciate who their neighbors are and to learn how to be more neighborly. Great project.”

Catholic Charities Executive Director Duane Dedelow stated: “Bishop Melczak of the Diocese of Gary is tremendously behind any endeavor that builds community and this is what this project is all about. I hope this project not only helps in that aspect but also leads to other revitalization efforts throughout the city of Gary, and I think it certainly will.”

The Times of Northwest Indiana covered the unveiling ceremony in an article titled “Micropark Unveiled in Gary’s Miller Neighborhood” on July 29. On September 4, the Times published the press release regarding the unveiling of Miller’s first bench, and on October 25 the Post-Tribune’s columnist Jerry Davich made “Please, Have A Seat!” front-page news. Executive Director Keith Speaks and NI Board President Keith Magiera had taken Mr. Davich on a tour of the Miller Beach benches and explained the project to him in detail. Nine benches have been installed in Miller Beach, with plans to install more in 2012, if funding permits.




A child plays on the newly renovated
playground equipment at Rees Park.

With the encouragement of Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, NI zeroed in on Rees Park located at 5th Avenue and Johnson in the Midtown area of the city as an ideal place to focus a rehab effort. Years of neglect had left the park in need of an upgrade and NI had ambitious plans to spruce it up.

These plans included replacing a backboard, fixing the playground slide, repairing a fallen fence, sanding and refinishing a wooden playset, installing new swings, cleaning up debris, general landscaping and the construction of two beautiful park benches.

NI coordinated a collaborative effort to make these improvements possible after Keith Speaks met with Catholic Charities’ executive director Duane Dedelow regarding NI’s “Please, Have A Seat!” program in Miller in spring of 2011. “We met at the McDonald’s right here, and he said, ‘We want to do something,’ ” Speaks said. “Parks are part of the neighborhood, and this is what NI does.”

Speaks enlisted the volunteer help of Hammond resident Johnny Young, who spent 35 hours restaining Rees Park’s playground equipment because “he didn’t want to do just a half job,” Speaks said. The City of Gary, Catholic Charities, Lake County’s Work Release Program and students from Bishop Noll Institute and Andrean High School all provided valuable resources to make this happen.

On Wednesday, May 30, Mayor Freeman-Wilson held a ceremony at Rees Park to officially kick off its Adopt-A-Park program and to encourage other local entities to follow NI’s example at the other 57 Gary parks. The mayor said that although the parks budget has been decimated because of the city’s declining property tax base, its residents still deserve a quiet, safe place to gather and bring their kids. Adopt-A-Park serves as another example of what happens when the community comes together, she said. During the ceremony, nearby McDonald’s general manager Akisha Moore officially announced its intention to adopt Rees Park and maintain it.

“This is a message to residents that no matter who contributes, these parks belong to all of us,” Freeman-Wilson said.

NI is very optimistic after witnessing Mayor Freeman-Wilson and the Gary Parks Department’s support and energy and their dedication to improving city neighborhoods.