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Greenville Conservation Partnership Helps Local Church Instill Community Pride

 

The Greenville Conservation Partnership,
along with volunteers from the church
and neighborhood, worked together to
reform an inner-city Greenville neighbor-
hood.

The Sullivan Street community in Greenville, South Carolina, has undergone an extreme makeover. The transformation was merely a dream a few years ago when Pastor Sean Dogan contacted the Greenville USDA NRCS for assistance and advice. His mission was clear and straightforward. He, along with church members from Long Branch Baptist Church, wanted to ensure that the stream running adjacent to the church was stabilized. “We simply wanted to clean up this channel and make sure that it didn’t collapse from the effects of severe erosion along the banks,” explained Dogan. “My main concern initially was the danger the channel posed.” The channel was also an eyesore that marred the church property. The Greenville Conservation Partnership was eager to assist Dogan and worked with him to implement a plan to stabilize and repair the 200-feet of eroding streambank. But, they did not stop there. This group embarked upon a venture that would improve the economic, environmental, and social conditions of an inner-city Greenville neighborhood.

A large area of vacant land behind the church had disintegrated into a scene of frequent drug trade and criminal activity. So, working with the Greenville NRCS, Soil & Water Conservation District (SWCD), and the Foothills Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) Council, the church went a step further and set its sights on a greenway development project. The area was first cleared of the dilapidated homes that bordered the area. Far exceeding his original intent to stabilize and clean out the stream, Dogan was determined to accomplish much more. From a relatively simple stream restoration project was born a cooperative conservation project that would instill pride in a depressed community, rally volunteers from the church and neighborhood, and create an oasis of peace, beauty, and reflection.

Formed in 1924 by a small group of worshipers, the founding members of Long Branch Baptist first met in two conjoined homes. They named the church after the meandering stream that bordered the property, and in which founding members were baptized. Over the years, the once sacred stream became a dumping ground for unwanted materials, including tires and other discarded items. Eroding banks were steep, dangerous, and rapidly approaching the perimeter of the church building. When Pastor Dogan was elected to lead the church in 1997, this was one of the numerous positive projects he initiated. Also, under his leadership the congregation increased its membership, and also purchased four acres of idle land surrounding the church. Unfortunately, the area bore the scars of neglect from a neighborhood wrought with crime, drug activity, and negligence. For a church so rich with history and with such a strong following, Dogan sought to ensure that the outside of his house of worship was just as sustainable and inviting as the interior.

Lynne Newton, Pastor Sean
Dogan, and Dave Demarest
(left to right) have formed not
only a working relationship,
but a lasting friendship.

Foothills RC&D Coordinator Dave Demarest and NRCS District Conservationist Lynne Newton worked closely with Pastor Dogan, and their business partnership turned into a lasting friendship. In fact, during the August 2009 SC NRCS Cultural Awareness Day, Dogan made a surprise appearance to present Demarest with the NRCS Outreach Award. Since beginning work on this project, they have developed not only an effective working relationship, but also a long-lasting friendship. Demarest was recognized with the award for his exemplary efforts in spearheading this project, and for his leadership, dedication, and commitment. Both Demarest and Newton worked diligently with the church to secure grants and funding sources, and were critical liaisons between the many project sponsors, partners, and volunteers. They also both agree that if it were not for the true commitment of the church, including their willingness to support the project with much of their own funding, it would not have happened. “We shared a vision and a common goal, and because of that, we couldn’t be stopped.” Demarest added, “Pastor Dogan and his church members were not looking to us strictly for financial assistance. They told us what they wanted, and we helped them find ways to get it done.” Just as Demarest was recognized for his efforts to make this project a success, Dogan was recently presented with the Greenville SWCD Urban Conservationist of the Year Award during the District’s annual banquet.

The Long Branch greenway project was implemented in four phases that included curb tree planting, stream restoration, establishment of a riparian area, and construction of a native rock sitting area. Newton explains how the project got started. “Pastor Sean first contacted me in 2008 for assistance in stabilizing the creek behind the church. We discussed several options including culverting the whole stream, riprap, and native stone. Culverting would have been the easiest, but it would have been expensive and timely due to permitting issues. Riprap wasn’t a desired option because we wanted a natural look, so that is what led us to chose a method of modified natural stream principles that use very large native rock in the bottom of the channel at several locations to reduce erosion. We also sloped the banks to allow the water to spread out during storm events.”

A fifth and final component of the plan evolved after the construction was complete. The establishment of an environmental education program for children and adults will be spearheaded by the Greenville SWCD who will work with Clubhouse Gang, an enrichment program for inner-city schoolchildren, to plan and implement monthly programs for children so they can get up close and personal with nature. Also, exposure to the variety of educational programs and speakers will hopefully interest young adults in pursuing a career in natural resources. Both young and old are benefitting from the recreational opportunities the greenway offers. In fact, the church has an active seniors group that recently installed beds where they will plant a Three Sister’s Garden, an ancient method of intercropping corn, beans, and squash. “Students and seniors will be engaged in outdoor learning activities to help them understand the importance of soil and water conservation, and teach them about responsible stewardship,” explained Dogan.

Demarest, Dogan, and Newton were overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and willingness of local residents to pitch in during the clean up and tree planting. “The response has been really awesome with scores of private citizens volunteering to help plant trees, clean up trash, and keep the area pristine,” said Dogan. The area is now a source of pride for the residents in the neighborhood, and Demarest shares a funny story about one particular evening he was caught “trespassing” at the greenway. “I had stopped by one night on my way home after work to check on the progress of the tree planting, and a lady that lives across the street warned me that she would call the authorities on me for messing with the trees!” Demarest says it was then that he realized what kind of impact the project was making on the community. “I was so glad when that happened, because it proved to me that the project was a success in the sense that folks were taking ownership of the greenway.” The once vacant and litter-strewn lot is dotted with a variety of trees thanks to the help of Trees Greenville, a non-profit community group focused on planting, promoting, and protecting trees in the county. Now, with the native rock sitting area complete, it serves as a beautiful focal point, and was made possible with grant support from the Lowcountry RC&D Council and Palmetto Pride. In fact, it was recently used as an altar for an outdoor wedding service. Newton recognizes that this project impacts both the conservation aspects of the area, but on a larger scale, is having a positive impact on the community as a whole. “Through this project and others like it, the church is changing the community one heart at a time. A person turns his or her life around and it impacts the family, the family changes, and over time the community is changed for the better, and that’s what it’s all about.” Newton is optimistic about the educational component of the greenway. “The stream is a great visual aid to emphasize the importance of water quality, soil erosion and wildlife habitat.”

This is more than a success story about a locally-led cooperative conservation project resulting in an aesthetically pleasing greenway and a stabilized streambank. It is the story of the power of community pride, local, state, and federal partnerships, concerned citizens and community leaders, and lasting friendships. Combining the talents, resources, enthusiasm, and ideas of a group of hard working, creative individuals resulted in a place of learning and exploration that will be present for generations to come. The motto of Long Branch Baptist, “Saving Souls and Solving Problems,” is a fitting one for this story. “If I had to pick one project over the course of my career which really illustrates the true spirit and mission of our work at NRCS, it would be this one,” concluded Demarest. Now, ninety-seven years after the founding members of Long Branch Baptist first baptized members in the stream that borders the present sanctuary, the area experiences a rebirth.

From the native rock sitting area, the restored streambank, tree plantings, and the volunteer effort and energy that went into getting the work done, this project clearly illustrates what happens when a community is inspired and empowered.