Unity, respect and empowerment. These are foundational pillars of the Oakwood Trails community.
In 2011, the Oakwood Trails subdivision, in the suburbs of Atlanta, was hit hard by the housing crisis, job loss and a wave of crime. At one point, about 40-50 houses were in foreclosure, according to Carol Yancey, who has lived in Oakwood Trails for 21 years.
"When the recession hit, most of the original homeowners and second [phase] homeowners lost their jobs, and then they were not able to stay in their homes," Carol said.
As families moved out, trouble moved in. To address rising rates of crime, the Oakwood Trails Neighborhood Watch was founded. Carol signed up with the intention of passing out flyers and doing door knocking. The next thing she knew, Carol was leading the group.
The newly formed Neighborhood Watch wanted to create an event that would build a stronger sense of community: The Back to School Annual Block Party & Parade and School Supplies Drive was born.
By organizing a school supplies drive, the goal was to help families who might be struggling economically by providing children with the supplies they needed to succeed in the classroom. They collected about $800 in donations from residents. They also reached out to local businesses for donations and in-kind contributions. During the first block party, they gave away dozens of filled school supply bags.
"After the first year, I did a lessons-learned [exercise], what worked, and what didn't work. We sat down and went over it, and planned from there," Carol said.
By the following summer, the block party had gained more traction. Now, eight years later, more than 1,200 school supply bags have been distributed, and the block party has become a highly anticipated event.
Every year, it has grown more popular, with the addition of more food, activities, special guests and a lively parade. It's also informative. Vendors and community organizations are invited to set up booths and help residents address issues such as foreclosure prevention, financial literacy and voter registration.
"The block party has been successful to the point that the police department, fire department and sheriff's department say that our event is better than some of the county-sponsored events — it's all done by residents," Carol said. "They see the unity, and when they come over here they say that we are tightknit and we stick together."
The neighborhood has seen a remarkable turnaround over the years. Now, as Atlanta has become more gentrified, and more people find themselves pushed out into the county, Carol said that by sticking together, Oakwood Trails has been able to stay both affordable and safe.
Carol explained that "unity, empowering, educating, supporting and encouraging each other so that we maintain healthy, stable, affordable housing" is what drives the community's efforts.
The Neighborhood Watch works closely with several partners, including law enforcement, the fire department, and other local agencies, as well as businesses and nonprofit organizations. One such partner is the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership (ANDP), a NeighborWorks network organization, which nominated Carol for the Dorothy Richardson Award for Resident Leadership.
ANDP helped by creating a survey for Oakwood Trails' residents to assess their needs and concerns, which the Neighborhood Watch has used to plan its initiatives. ANDP also sponsored Carol to attend NeighborWorks America's Community Leadership Institute training and other community engagement programs. She also serves on ANDP's board of directors, where she continues to develop as a leader.
ANDP's President and CEO, John O'Callaghan notes that despite the serious challenges facing her community, Carol "refused to sit by and watch her neighborhood suffer."
"Each year, the back-to-school block party grows in its impact fueled by Carol's leadership and infectious enthusiasm," O'Callaghan said. "Carol cares deeply for her community. She inspires others to act. She is the true definition of a servant leader." Another community-based organization, the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta, awarded the Oakwood Trails Neighborhood Watch $8,000 in grant funding.
Carol loves connecting with resident leaders in other neighborhoods around Clayton County, and everyone seems to know Carol and the Oakwood Trails' annual event. "Sometimes, when I show up to places, my nickname is Block Party Queen," she said.
She enjoys sharing ideas and exchanging resources. "It started out as a block party, where we were trying to support each other, and be each other's keeper, and it has become a catalyst for other neighborhoods that are trying the same thing," Carol said.
"It makes me realize that this is not just an Oakwood Trails problem — the problems that we are experiencing," she said. "It opens up relationships with other neighborhoods and community leaders to see that we all have the same problems and are working toward the same solutions."