Small grant funds help new Champaign neighborhood group clean up its streets 

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The boundaries of the Neighborhood Co-Labourers Community Group, a new registered association in Champaign. Photo from the city's website.

Concerned about the litter and waste on the streets and yards in their area, Champaign residents living east of downtown formed the Neighborhood Co-Labourers Community Group, a registered neighborhood association last spring.

Forming a community organization qualified the group for a city grant program that funds cleanup projects, among other types of projects.

Champaign Neighborhood Relations Manager John Ruffin said the community group came together over concerns about the area’s cleanliness.

“These are long-time residents of the neighborhood and they reached out to members of the community to participate in the completion of the new group application,” Ruffin said. “They organized a meeting with the neighborhood at the local church where they talked about some of their concerns in regards to properties in the area, and the need for a neighborhood clean-up to get rid of the large household waste that had built up over the last several years.” 

The neighborhood is bordered on the north by Washington Street and on the south by the alley just south of Park Street. It stretches west to east from Second Street to Fifth Street.

“What the Co-labourers community group did this year was clean up the neighborhood to maintain it over the summer so now it’s onto building on that in the years to come,” Ruffin said. “Now, as we transition into fall and winter, our hope is that we can work with them to begin planning for next year.” 

The city’s Neighborhood Relations Division oversees the grant program, which can provide small grants to registered communities after an application process. If approved, neighborhoods can receive up to $5,000 within a fiscal year, while the maximum grant amount per request for an eligible project is $2,500. 

For communities interested in creating a new group, organized neighborhoods must submit an application to the city. 

The Neighborhood Co-Labourers Community Group is one of ten neighborhood associations registered with the city. They are listed on Champaign’s website

The other neighborhood associations are:

  • 500-800 West Washington Street
  • Beardsley Park Neighborhood Association
  • BPM2
  • Champaign’s Best Kids
  • Clark Park Neighborhood
  • Garden Park & Edgebrook Neighborhood Association
  • Martin Luther King Subdivision
  • Shadow Wood Mobile Home Park
  • United Garden Hills Neighborhood Association

To qualify for the grant, the city program requires applicants to volunteer for a portion of the time needed for the project. Independent Sector, a national non-profit that researches charity and volunteering, said in its April 2023 Value of Volunteer Time report that the value of a volunteer hour was $31.80 in the U.S. in 2022. In Illinois, it was $32.68, an increase from $30.97 in 2021. The report is cited by Champaign on its website.

Champaign’s small grant program was approved by the city council in December 1995 and is also known as the pilot program or the Neighborhood Improvement Program (NIP). 

From the Neighborhood Small Grant Program Manual: “The purpose of the program was to encourage citizens to take an active role in organizing their neighborhoods and to prioritize neighborhood needs. The University of Illinois partnered with the City and neighborhood residents to assist with neighborhood-based planning.”

In addition to small grants and state-issued funds, residents, businesses and community-based organizations such as neighborhood watch committees, homeowners associations and neighborhood groups can apply for the program. 

Neighborhood associations typically consist of a group of neighborhood residents who work together to improve the quality of life in various neighborhoods. Membership in these groups is voluntary — the associations typically include people of all backgrounds such as homeowners, renters, apartment residents, business owners, schools and churches. 

To be considered a neighborhood, the area must be bounded by at least a couple of blocks and can expand up to an entire subdivision. Leadership in these neighborhoods, at minimum, must include a primary and secondary leader.

Some neighborhood associations have put together boards with bylaws. Some groups also inform their neighborhoods beyond community safety measures, differentiating them from organized neighborhood watch groups or patrols.

Ruffin said after the initial proposals for each neighborhood group are completed, the community may be encouraged to organize more enhancements for the area. 

All money granted to the neighborhood must be used to enhance or improve the community, including all activities that may generate public benefit. The small grant program is funded by a portion of the city’s Urban Renewal Fund, which is derived from 75% of the city’s tax on utilities, electric, gas and water. It is a designated fund source for community improvement activities managed by the Neighborhood Services Department.

Ruffin said the community members living outside of the area can assist in the betterment of communities like the Neighborhood Co-Labourers through resources offered by the city. He said he looks forward to the community’s growth in the years to come. 

“We want to have a consistent organization of neighbors to continue building a strong and stable neighborhood,” Ruffin said. “Right now we’re just trying to maintain what we’ve built up and the small successes that come from this help more people come to the table.”

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