EPA Works Toward ‘Making a Visible Difference’ in Omaha and Council Bluffs Communities

By Kathleen L. Fenton

From left: Bill Lukash, Toni Gargas and Dave Williams

From left: Bill Lukash, Toni Gargas and Dave Williams

An eager EPA team, Toni Gargas, Dave Williams and I, came together to begin a new chapter last week in our work with communities. We’ll be working in a focused way with the cities of Omaha, Neb., and Council Bluffs, Iowa. EPA has an exciting new initiative called Making a Visible Difference in Communities. It’s a tall order but the three of us are up to the challenge.

We started our work with our Acting Regional Administrator, Mark Hague, reaching out to the two cities’ mayors and city planning administrations. Last week, between the two cities, our team met with many community service and public health providers, city planners, and neighborhood leaders.

As an initial step, we will listen to determine what is needed. Then we’ll find out where EPA Region 7 staff can best help with our current resources and technical assistance.

Our Omaha visit was initiated by an invitation from David Thomas, Assistant Director of the Omaha City Planning Department, to attend a community planning meeting at Prospect Village. There we met with over 30 community service partners who have worked with neighbors, organizations, and faith community to help move and build up this neighborhood for the past two years. The city plans on focusing their efforts on a number of established neighborhoods that are interested in enhancing their sustainability and quality of life.

Theresa Gilreath tends the urban garden

Theresa Gilreath tends the urban garden

Bill Lukash, Omaha City Planner, gave us a short but informative tour of the neighborhood and the various city efforts underway in northeastern Omaha. One example of the current work supported by the city is the placement and growth of many urban gardens throughout neighborhoods, senior living complexes, and schools.

We also ran into Theresa Gilreath, who lives at Village East Senior Apartments. With the help of many in the community – especially her friend, Ginger Thomas, and the Omaha City Planning Department and local development organizations – Theresa, Ginger and others in the community have maintained one of the most beautiful and prolific urban gardens I have ever seen. This senior living complex and its urban garden, now in its fall harvest, feeds over 42 families with fruits, vegetables and herbs. It is also a restful meeting place for members to use for outdoor visits.

Another example of EPA’s intended efforts, and the topic of some of our meetings with Omaha and Council Bluffs, was discussing a resource EPA can bring to the table: training sessions for schools. Our grantee, Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., will bring Healthy Schools training to those who work on school maintenance and children’s health, like school nurses and the county health departments. We hope to deliver a number of Healthy Schools training sessions to the two cities, each by 2016.

EPA will support what the two cities need most from EPA, and “connecting these dots” through information, technical assistance, and hard work will be our primary focus in Omaha and Council Bluffs. The cities have welcomed our initiative. Toni, Dave and I look forward to meeting some thoughtful and dedicated elected officials, city government staff, and citizens who are continuing to build their communities one step at a time to make a visible difference. Stay tuned for the next steps in these partnerships as we work together for the Heartland!

About the Author: Kathleen L. Fenton serves as the Environmental Education Program Coordinator and the Lead Strategic Planner in EPA Region 7’s Office of Public Affairs. She has worked with communities on environmental health issues, environmental education, and Healthy Schools projects for over 20 years.

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