I had no idea I'd look at my neighborhood with a different eye when I walked into my Loras Hall office to start a hazily defined job as "the party house guy," a liaison to the St. Paul community. I had no notion I'd mentally catalog houses as rental units or owner-occupied homes. Never dreamed I'd cooperate with cops, city agencies, neighbors and community organizers to address student behavior in the neighborhood.
Five years later, I've got an oversized file drawer that details a host of specifics. I'm aware of about 300 single-family or duplex units that are typically rented by students. I can tell you who owns what property, how many they own and whether they keep property in good repair. I know the histories of problem spots, what home is up for sale, what unit is for rent, which neighbor cries wolf, which one calls with legitimate concerns, and which one believes that he has singular ownership of the parking space in front of his house.
I have a St. Paul plat map on my office wall that is overlaid by a St. Thomas campus map. Colored pins indicate the locations of rental units, student-owned houses, and apartment buildings. Red flags indicate chronic problem properties, and there were more than 30 of them when I started. Now there are less than five. It's my goal each year to reduce the number of red flags on my map to zero.
It didn't take long for the phone to begin ringing that first summer, and it became apparent that there were two ways I could approach the job. I could sit back and wait for complaints to filter in. Or I could work proactively, align myself with our Public Safety and the Dean of Student Life offices, and educate our students about what it means to be good neighbors.
As a result – and bearing in mind that we hold students accountable for off-campus behavior that is detrimental to the university – we have developed a host of ways to educate our students and to fulfill our rightful obligation of being a good neighbor. While the offices I've noted work as a team and hold weekly meetings to clarify the university's response to specific incidents, there are seasonal projects that do kick in.
It starts in January with a project I call my "matchmaker service" when I contact landlords who rent to students and ask them to include clear wording in their leases that addresses party-related issues. I volunteer to meet with their new tenants to advise them of their rights and responsibilities as well as general neighborhood concerns. Last year, I held more than 40 meetings and spoke with almost 200 students.
In February and March, the Commuter Center hosts workshops for students who plan to move off campus. Students hear from a local landlord, a member of the dean's staff, a St. Paul cop, a public safety officer and a representative from the St. Paul Tenants' Union.
Public Safety is especially helpful in the spring (and fall) when it hires an off-campus police officer to assist with weekend patrols in the neighborhood, and to head off potential difficulties before they occur. Obviously, the patrol also facilitates a quicker response to complaints. In the summer, Public Safety organizes a meeting between campus representatives and police officials to discuss response strategies to neighborhood disturbances for the coming academic year.
I make my rounds in September, doing what the cops call "knock and talks" at more than 50 "St. Thomas houses" (especially ones with "histories") to advise resident students of their rights and responsibilities and to remind them that their neighbors' windows are open. Last fall, our assistant dean of student life came along, underscoring our involvement and demonstrating our good will.
We also send a fall mailing to more than 350 student addresses. The material covers everything from renters' rights and responsibilities to comportment matters to recycling to lawn care and alley cleanliness to parking and snow removal and snow emergencies. We also include refrigerator magnets for students to fill out with their names and phone numbers and then share with their neighbors as a way of introduction. This year we didn't even use postage to deliver the packets. Two years ago, All College Council students actually hand-delivered the bulk of them. This year I delivered them.
For the past three years, St. Thomas has cooperated with the city, which has sponsored a program called Zero Adult Providers (ZAP). Starting in the fall and continuing in the warmer months of the college year, undercover vice officers patrol St. Paul college neighborhoods intent on identifying and citing underage consumers of alcohol as well as those who provide alcohol to minors.
Sometimes the cops come to our neighborhood. Sometimes our students get zapped – and have to go to court as well as appear before the dean. We don't like it when our students receive citations but we do know they have to learn to take responsibility for disregarding the law. The program is effective and will continue. Our neighbors like it about as much as our students dislike it. I'll take off my St. Thomas hat for a minute and tell you that my neighborhood is now a quieter place to live.
This litany makes it sound worse than it really is, makes it sound like we live in a combat zone. The reactive and proactive work that we do is in response to the actions of a very few of our students while the majority really are good neighbors.
I'm reminded of a time I stood on a neighbor's front porch and listened to her rail in magnificent generalities about our disrespectful students.
I let her talk, get it out of her system, then asked, "Do you know what would happen if I generalized about any other group of people like you just did?"
She paused and frowned. She didn't know where I was going about protecting the rights of the last unprotected class of citizens, college students.
"I'd be fired," I said.
"Oh," she said, "I get it. Well. I didn't mean all students. They're not all that bad."
She's right. They're not all that bad.
The point is that I know how it feels and it reminds me that we all are neighbors. We all bear responsibility for our neighborhood. I'm glad that St. Thomas has chosen to put its money where its mouth is. I'm glad we're trying to be a good neighbor. I merely count it a privilege to serve the place where I live.
John Hershey is director for St. Paul community partnerships and neighborhood relations. He lives near campus with his family and has worked in college and university settings for 30 years.
Food Shelf helps families get through tough times
The bad news is that her agency is busier than ever. However, "to see how our services played a key role in helping families get through tough times" helps motivate Hollie (Buss) Ott '01.
The supervisor of the Midway Food Shelf at 1916 University Ave., Ott majored in business at St. Thomas and was always interested in working with nonprofits. Now she and her volunteers are working at one of the busiest in St. Paul. As a student, Ott volunteered at the food shelf through neighboring Merriam Park Community Services (now called Keystone Community Services).
That giving back is more important than ever, Ott said, noting "the number of people who need to use a food shelf is increasing greatly." The University Avenue food shelf now serves between 400 to 500 families a month, and that is a yearly increase of almost 600 families from 2002-2003. Five years ago, in 1998, about 1,900 fewer families used the food shelf.
Each client family is given food to last at least three to five days. The food shelf's 20 to 30 volunteers average almost 400 hours per month in helping them.
The St. Thomas community has contributed a great deal, Ott explained. "There are many donors. For example, the swim and basketball teams have collected during tournaments, students celebrate Halloween by Ôtrick or treating' for food, and some departments collect food as a way to celebrate the holidays. And student groups I know are from St. Thomas will drop by with donations as well."
Besides the University Avenue food shelf, Keystone Community Services operates three additional food shelves that serve a large portion of St. Paul, Little Canada, Vadnais Heights, Roseville, and a portion of Maplewood.
Contributions of nonperishable food items, cash or checks are welcome at the Keystone Community Services Midway Food Shelf. Call (651) 917-3939 to arrange drop-off times or send donations to 1916 University Ave., St. Paul, MN 55104.
Small Business Institute helps companies improve performance
Gena Balsimo and Lisa Hane bring 10 years of fitness training experience to their well-equipped Flex Appeal center at the corner of Prior and St. Clair, near St. Thomas. What they needed, though, Balsimo said, was 'business expertise" on how to better market the almost 2-year-old personal fitness center. Balsimo's husband, David Lewandowski '99, remembered that St. Thomas had an award winning Small Business Institute, which helps business of any size improve their performance and profitability.
Dr. Jamal Al-Khatib, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Mississippi and is director of the institute, explained that many students gain practical experience while taking the popular class, 'Marketing Management." Students apply theories from the classroom to real business projects with selected clients. Each team consists of three or four senior business majors.
'Each student team meets with a client, writes a research proposal, and executes an action plan after client approval. Clients may need anything from a marketing plan to a survey-based study," Al-Khatib explained. 'By the end of the semester, each student group has spent around 140 hours with a client. The SBI project concludes with both a written and oral report to the client." The SBI helps approximately 50 businesses a year. Forty percent are in St. Paul and many close to St. Thomas.
At Flex Appeal, 'My partner and I are experts at fitness," Hane explained, 'but we needed help with what to look for in marketing our training skills to the right audience. The students have great ideas and a good knowledge of how to research and access the community. We are pleased with how much the students know."
'We put together a marketing survey, analyzed data and developed a strategic marketing plan," said Andrea Haala '04. 'It is a real hands-on experience, like an internship," added Emily Rasmussen '04. 'It takes learning out into the real world. Also, I've learned a lot about how small, start-up companies integrate the many facets of business."
To request assistance from the Small Business Institute, call (651) 962-5126, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the SBI web site at: www.stthomas.edu/sbi.