WALLA WALLA -- Federico Diaz sprays a push mop with some solution to prepare the concrete floor of the old Washington School gym for a round of indoor soccer.
"It's for the dust," Diaz points out, as he begins pushing the mop across the gym floor to make it less slippery for his young players. Nearby, several teens have already arrived for the daily game that has become a popular after-school draw in the Washington Park neighborhood.
The indoor sports program is just one of several initiatives that Diaz and his agency, Commitment to Community, have launched as a way to strengthen neighborhoods and empower residents to take ownership of their resources.
As the neighborhood organizer for the Washington Park area, Diaz runs the indoor sports program, which quickly evolved into indoor soccer due to popular demand. Diaz also coordinates a boys group, or council, that meets once a week. Since 2006, Diaz has worked with neighbors, other nonprofits and particularly youths to beautify the neighborhood.
As a testament to the work, Washington Park boasts new playground equipment and a wall painted in bright colors and shapes by area children. It has public bathrooms, trash bins, benches and a basketball court that has always drawn people.
But the community outreach is not limited to Washington Park. In the last few years, the Edith and Carrie neighborhood north of U.S Highway 12 has seen a similar rebirth thanks to the cleanup of blighted areas and the creation of a residential park and community garden.
Jefferson Park also saw new playground equipment during that time, transforming the park from a place to avoid to one now frequently visited by families with children.
Since first setting roots in Walla Walla several years ago, Commitment to Community has been working with residents to lift neighborhoods. Also known as C2C, the group is particularly focused on tuning in to residents' wishes.
C2C appears to have entered the new year with those roots firmly planted. It has its own office at 320 N. Seventh Ave., in space provided by the Walla Walla Housing Authority at an apartment complex. The authority also provides the gym, and the sports program is in partnership with the city.
Sponsored by Blue Mountain Action Council, and supported financially by the Donald and Virginia Sherwood Trust, the group has four full-time staff members and also receives support from other groups.
Establishing connections with other agencies is part of C2C's mission. Community coordinator Nancy Carter said her group looks to work with residents to reflect their needs, and then collaborate with other agencies to bring those programs or projects forward.
"It becomes a venue for other organizations to work with at-risk youth," Carter said.
A partnership with Children's Home Society helped shape an after-school homework program to serve children in the Edith and Carrie and Washington Park neighborhoods.
AmeriCorps members Yesenia Guevara and Sonja Pipek are regular participants in several C2C programs, including two girls groups that offer a safe place for them to hang out once a week while building trust and confidence.
The group meets in the C2C office, which has also become a community resource. Over several weeks, the group coordinated free English and computer lessons, and classes on parenting adolescents. Diaz's boys council also meets in the office.
In the coming months, C2C will shift its energy to an outreach project expected to bring a plaza to Washington Park. But its sports and youth groups will continue to meet.
Like Diaz, Lupe Mares is a neighborhood organizer for the Jefferson Park neighborhood. Her work often takes her door to door in the area, to meet residents or leave fliers about upcoming events. Mares runs the girls groups with help from Guevara, Pipek and Julia Leavitt, the Edith and Carrie neighborhood organizer.
Back at the gym, Diaz explained how he'd like to convert the vacant auditorium space in the gym for recreational use. The space, which once served as the gymnasium, auditorium and cafeteria for the old elementary school, is now used mainly for storage.
Through time, Diaz has fostered many of the connections that have helped the programs thrive. He is a familiar face at the indoor sports program to the more than 20 youths who regularly show up.
"She's the hula hoop queen," Diaz said as a young girl walked into the gym and signed in recently. "Nobody beats her at hula hoop. Verdad, Ruby?"
A focus on youth appears to be a driving force. For the Washington Park project this summer, C2C has drawn on area youth to offer ideas and even offer designs.
For now, the indoor soccer matches have helped the teens work together in friendly competition. It runs Monday through Thursday from 3:30-5:30 p.m. Arguments are rare, and most of the youths know to make the most of the time they do have the space.
"The point is just to keep playing," Diaz said. "We try to get the most of those two hours."
Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.