Night Out event celebrates police, community bonds

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After interviews with officers, children share law-enforcement insight

By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times

Kennett Square Police Chief Edward A. Zunino Jr. shakes the hand of a newly designated “junior” officer.

One by one, 15 children, some totally dwarfed by the podium, shared  tidbits gleaned from interviewing Kennett Square police officers as well as some advice for the chief: The department needs a K9.

The short narratives capped a program to observe National Night Out, a popular, annual initiative to promote residential safety. Held the first Tuesday in August, the event, which varies by venue, commonly includes reminders to turn on porch lights and remain vigilant against crime, neighborhood walks, or safety contests.

In Kennett Square, organizers of the Historic East Linden Project (HELP) took a more festive approach, staging a block party to celebrate the inroads the community has made in the past decade to reverse a downward spiral fueled by crime.

Among more than 100 attendees on the lawn of the Bethel AME Church, the guests of honor included members of law-enforcement from Kennett Square, Kennett Township, New Garden Township, the Avondale barracks of the state police, and the Chester County Sheriff’s Office.

“We are here to praise their commitment and their dedication,” said Rep. Joe Pitts, one of several speakers.

Janine Kreiss, who coordinated the event for HELP, said the community values the cooperative relationship the police have cultivated with citizens, an approach the children experienced first-hand.

A New Garden Township officer discusses the public-safety features of his vehicles with a group of neighborhood children.

The young presenters, some of whom needed a gentle assist from Kreiss, showcased their newfound knowledge. For example, the officers, who were approachable – “not scary” – enjoy many of the same leisure activities as the kids do, such as kayaking and biking. However, one girl elicited grins when she mentioned a pastime of Cpl. Richard Bell that didn’t exactly excite her:  hunting a deer with a bow and arrow and then eating it.

Other revelations included the fact that Chief Edward A. Zunino Jr. has befriended people he has arrested, police officers get arrested if they don’t abide by the law, and bulletproof vests are not comfortable, particularly in hot weather.

“Thanks for getting to know us so we don’t have to feel nervous around you,” one youngster said. “If you ever have a problem, call 9-1-1,” another recommended.

After the children’s presentations, they were called up to receive congratulations from Zunino, who bestowed them with junior police officer honors. The remainder of the event was dominated by refreshments from Herr’s Food Inc., Giordano’s Pizzeria, Fox’s Pizza Den, and Pat’s Pizzeria of Kennett Square, as well as guided tours of police and fire vehicles, complete with wailing sirens.

Zunino said it was gratifying to see what a huge difference committed citizens can make. He and his predecessor, Kennett Township Police Chief Albert McCarthy, both said they remembered attending a pivotal meeting in the AME church basement more than 10 years ago.

Before that, Zunino said the community of about 85 homes in a five-block area saw a disproportionate share of crime. Parents were afraid to let their children go outside, and weekend melees were the norm, generally the result of drug trafficking.

 

Homes in the East Linden Street neighborhood now feature plaques that highlight their history.

The meeting was organized by Theresa Bass, who has lived on the street for more than four decades. When she grew up, she bought a rowhome several doors down from her mother, who had raised seven kids in the 300 block of East Linden and still resides there.

Bass recalled being fed up, contemplating moving out,  and complaining to Joan Holliday, a public nurse who worked in the low-income neighborhood and also attended the National Night Out program.  “She told me: You’re just complaining; what are you going to do about it?” Bass said.

The meeting was Bass’s answer, she said, but it only generated an audience of five people. With Holliday’s support, Bass said she refused to give up and started knocking on doors. She said the neighborhood’s first big cleanup was attended by 300, many of whom lived outside the community.

“It wasn’t ever easy,” she said. “We hit a lot of obstacles.”

Twelve years later, the Historic East Linden Project is a 501c3, and Holliday is a board member. Bass’s daughter, Latoya Myers, serves as executive director and oversees a staff that runs well-received programs such as “Study Buddies” for schoolchildren, Bass said. Homes sport plaques showcasing their history, and well-maintained front porches are framed by hanging baskets and comfy seating.

“No one has to be afraid to walk around here, not even at night,” said Zunino.

Mario Aguilar, who moved onto East Linden Street with his wife, Rita Vergara, four years ago, would agree. He said they enjoy the neighborhood’s diversity and community spirit and believe it’s a great place to raise their three children, who range in age from 1½ to 7.  “We’re very happy here,” he said.

 

 

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