By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
In one west Birmingham community, residents have put together Bush Hills Connections, a nonprofit organization to pool resources and forge partnerships to benefit their neighborhood.
Joanice Thompson said the organization, while separate, works in lockstep with the neighborhood association (NA) to achieve revitalization in three areas: education, health and wellness and the built environment, which includes architecture, sidewalks, roads and other infrastructure.
Ultimately, NAs need resources, and the city only gives so much and Bush Hills Connections seeks to bridge that gap, said Thompson, president of the group.
“[Neighborhoods] cannot raise funds, [and] you cannot build healthy competitive neighborhoods without having resources to do so, and the city can’t do everything,” she said.
The group was first put together as a committee under the Bush Hills NA in 2017. Though now incorporated as a 501(c)(3), the nonprofit still reports to the NA through its “Connections” committee.
Also that year Bush Hills began the process of creating the Bush Hills Community Garden and Urban Farm which Thompson calls one of the neighborhood’s biggest achievements. It was in 2017 that Birmingham City Schools granted the NA and Bush Hills Connections a 50-year lease on the site of the former Woodrow Wilson Elementary School.
Since 2018, the land has been designated an urban farm, and now produces 50,000 pounds of various fruits and vegetables. The produce is primarily given out at the farm on harvest days and delivered to senior residents of the community.
Excess produce is donated to other service organizations in the city, like the Community Kitchens food bank and soup kitchen, Thompson said.
In addition to planting on the vacant portion of the Wilson Elementary property, Bush Hills Connections puts together partnerships with other local entities which helped renovate the school building into a community space with a new kitchen, community meeting room, a courtyard area and a revamped auditorium which now hosts NA meetings and soon will host community plays.
BL Harbert, an international construction firm based in Birmingham, helped create the idea for the new community space.
“It just so happened they saw the building standing there, and it was like the elephant in the room for us because we didn’t have any thought to do anything with it…The BL Harbert representative said, ‘Well, that’s a beautiful building. What do you all want to do to it?'” Thompson recalled.
At the time the NA didn’t have an indoor space for many of their activities. “We don’t have a place where we meet. We do everything outside … yoga, exercise and cooking. Everything takes place on the outside, and we set up tables, chairs and all of that,” she said.
BL Harbert took the renovation project on as part of its philanthropic projects and rebuilt the former school building into the new community space.
The existence of Bush Hills Connections showed Harbert that residents were serious about their community, Thompson said.
“Chuck Bohn, [president of Harbert’s International Group], said the reason he did it was because [Bush Hills Connections] had a foundation in the community because they don’t like to build things and come back, and it’s gone,” she said.
With Harbert’s support, Bush Hills will start a corner market next year to sell some of the produce grown on the urban farm, she added.
Connections has also partnered with the University of Alabama at Birmingham through its Live HealthSmart Alabama program, which has done lighting and sidewalk improvements.
But working with the Bush Hills NA remains a focus, she said.
“I don’t know any other way in the city of Birmingham, [anything] can be done if you’re not in partnership with your neighborhood association, you’ve got to agree to move the neighborhood forward,” Thompson said.
Additionally, Thompson said Bush Hills Connections serves as a means to prepare future leaders through its “Connectors” program, which recruits new young professionals from the neighborhood.
“We’re not gonna be around here always, and … I’m at retirement age, so I know that in order to [maintain] sustainability for long term you’ve got to be able to duplicate yourself and replace yourself gladly,” said Thompson, 73.
Currently, eight young people serve as Bush Hills Connectors. In addition to helping solve some technology-related problems for the neighborhood, the Connectors recently held an event that brought out more than 30 people, Thompson said.
While it’s necessary that older people in neighborhood leadership take ownership, it is important to remember that others will come after them, she said.
“It’s not my garden. It’s not my farm, my building, whatever. It belongs to Bush Hills and future generations,” Thompson said.