National Night Out event keeps garnering fans

Popsicle proved to be a popular finale during Kennett Square's National Night Out, a celebration of the positive relationship between police and the community.

Popsicles proved to be a popular finale during Kennett Square's National Night Out, a celebration of the positive relationship between police and the community.

The beaming smiles on children’s faces on Tuesday evening as they vied for the attention of their favorite Kennett Square police officers illustrated the success of the borough’s National Night Out as it celebrated its fifth year.

Kennett Square Police Officer Jonhathan Ortiz  (from left) enjoys watching Aalana Vasquez and Johnnette Boddy devour their pizza.

Kennett Square Police Officer Johnathan Ortiz (from left) enjoys watching Aalana Vasquez and Johnnette Boddy eat their pizza with enthusiasm.

State Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-19, explained that the event, begun 32 years ago by the National Association of Town Watches (NATW), is designed to encourage community policing. Held on the first Tuesday in August in communities throughout the country, it attracted 38.1 million participants in 2014 with activities ranging from block parties to flashlight walks, according to the NATW website.

Dinniman said National Night Out strives to bring the police and citizens together so they can work together to prevent crime. “What’s happening here is that they’re already together,” he said, citing the work of the Joseph and Sarah Carter Community Development Corporation (Carter CDC), which organized the event. “You’re a good example; we should do this all over.”

For the Carter CDC, formerly the Historic East Linden Project, Inc., National Night Out represents an opportunity to applaud a community partnership with law enforcement that has come a long way. Once plagued by drug-dealing, violence, and disrepair, the historic, culturally diverse neighborhood surrounding East Linden Street has experienced a dramatic revitalization.

Carter CDC Board member Ethan Cramer (left) chats with state Rep. Steve Barrar.

Carter CDC Board member Ethan Cramer (left) chats with state Rep. Steve Barrar, R-160, Chester/Delaware.

Colorful window boxes and hanging baskets have replaced boarded-up windows and piles of debris, and mistrust and territorial disputes have given way to collegial relationships among neighbors. Kennett Square Police Chief Edward A. Zunino Jr. has said that the changes have also produced a dramatic reduction in crime.

State Rep. Steve Barrar, R-160, Chester/Delaware, was one of nearly 100 attendees at the event, which drew a crowd as diverse as the community. Kennett Consolidated School District Superintendent Barry Tomasetti, Assistant Superintendent Michael Barber, members of Borough Council and clergy mingled with community leaders and residents.

Addressing the audience, Barrar said he was amazed to learn about the area’s troubled past. He said citizens often turn to government to try and fix problems when they should be working toward a solution themselves.

“The history here is impressive,” he said. “It shows what can be done.”

Each year, organizers mix up the program, which always generates spontaneous interaction between the youth and police officers. This year’s format borrowed from the Oprah Winfrey show, with Zanyla Mitchell, a high school student and neighborhood leader, and Kennett Square Borough Council President Leon Spencer sharing interview duties.

Their subjects had been determined minutes earlier during a sometimes giggly survey session that paired police officers with a young person with whom they discovered a common bond. For example, Jasmine Morefield learned that she and Officer Matt Creighton both enjoy eating food, especially fried chicken.

Aalana Vasquez found that Officer Johnathan Ortiz shares her passion for purple. Officer Sarah Capaccio and Kayla Morefield both wrote “hot chicken wings” for their favorite dish while Officer Christopher Gravina and Maria Mondragon prefer tacos. Britney Bautista hit a trifecta with Cpl. Christopher Wills: Both wear glasses, like the color blue, and have a connection to eighth grade – Wills’ son and Bautista are both entering it.

A diverse crowd enjoys watching the interviews during Kennett Square's version of National Night Out.

A diverse crowd enjoys watching the interviews during Kennett Square's version of National Night Out.

Each of the pairs took a turn on stage being interviewed by Mitchell and Spencer. Capaccio, who once led cheers at Kennett High and now works as the school’s resource officer, got one of the tougher questions: How has the borough changed since her teenage years?

“I can remember not ever hanging out in Kennett Square” in high school, she said, “I feel that the stigma of not being able to hang out in Kennett has gone away.”

Wills had an easier query: How tall is he? “Without my boots, 6-5, with boots, 6-7,” he replied, prompting a quip from Spencer about Wills’ high heels.

The program concluded with thanks from Theresa Bass, a lifelong resident and one of the founders of the Historic East Linden Project, Inc., and instructions for everyone to enjoy food offerings that included pizza, soft pretzels, water ice and popsicles.

The turnaround of the neighborhood, spearheaded by Bass and Joan Holliday, a public nurse who worked in the neighborhood, with assistance from the police, began more than a decade ago. After countless hours and volunteers, the Historic East Linden Project was formed and eventually became a 501-c3 with Bass as president and Holliday serving for a time as a board member.

Following several years of discussion and planning, the Historic East Linden Street became the Carter CDC last year, named for a family that rose to prominence after arriving in Kennett Square on the Underground Railroad. LaToya M. Myers, Bass’s daughter and the organization’s executive director, said the change made sense because the organization focuses primarily on quality-of-life issues.

Zanyla Mitchell, a high school student and neighborhood leader, and Kennett Square Borough Council President Leon Spencer share co-hosting duties during Kennett Square's National Night Out festivities.

Zanyla Mitchell (from left), a high school student and neighborhood leader, and Kennett Square Borough Council President Leon Spencer share co-hosting duties during Kennett Square's National Night Out festivities.

On a typical school afternoon, a passel of enthusiastic elementary students fills the basement of the Bethel AME Church on East Linden Street for Study Buddies, one of the organization’s most popular programs. About 50 students participate each week, getting homework assistance, computer access, snacks, and dinner from a rotating group of volunteers that includes high school students as well as police officers.

A summer meal program provides a safety net when school isn’t in session by providing young people with lunch five days each week. Other annual initiatives include book bag distribution, a health fair, a Community Gala Brunch, and a block party.

Theresa Melendez, a newcomer to the neighborhood, brought her 4-year-old son to check out Tuesday night’s festivities.

“I was impressed,” she said, adding that she had attended some National Night Out programs in Delaware, where they lived previously. “This was more intimate,” she said. “The kids really seemed to know the police officers. I’m glad we came. It was very nice.”

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About Kathleen Brady Shea

Kathleen Brady Shea, a nearly lifelong area resident, has been reporting on local news for several decades, including 19 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer. She believes that journalists provide a vital watchdog service in the community, and she embraces that commitment. In addition to unearthing news, she also enjoys digging up dirt in her garden, a hobby that frequently fosters Longwood Gardens envy. Along with her husband, Pete, she lives in a historic residence near the Brandywine Battlefield, a property that is also home to a sheep, a goat, and a passel of fish.

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