Last week was a celebration marking the 40th anniversary of the Central City Community Center. In 1965, the Salt Lake City Community Action Program, as part of the War on Poverty, hired me to help people develop self-help programs for its community. The program called for the "maximum feasible participation of the poor" and the mobilization of community resources. It started with the belief that given the opportunity, people have the ability to improve their lives and that change starts at the grass roots with people who care.

The Central City Neighborhood Council was then organized among neighborhood residents. They worked together to learn the needs of the neighborhood and to figure out ways to meet them. One of them was to have a central place in their neighborhood where residents could find resources that would help them. It started with my hand-drawn picture of a small, split-level building for that purpose. Soon after, neighbors sought out volunteer help from others in the community. One of the first was Will Louie from the Scott and Louie Architects firm who volunteered to draft the initial plan for what is now the Central City Community Center. The people designed a host of services to be offered in the facility — job counseling, social services, a library, student tutoring, vocational rehabilitation, police, wood shop, recreation, arts/crafts, a gym, a music pit designed by youths and a preschool nursery. The council learned change would require creating a common vision and a strategy to make it a reality — time, hard work and staying focused on their vision. Members knew they had to make the public aware that they did not want a handout, rather support with their self-help programs. In the meantime, I found the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development had grants to build facilities in low-income neighborhoods to provide needed services under one roof. It required local communities to provide one-third of the cost of the facility, part of which could be in-kind contributions. Shortly after, John Baldwin, then a reporter for the former weekly Rocky Mountain Review, urged me to meet with Jim Barker, who was a Salt Lake City commissioner interested in public safety and youth programs.

At that time, Mayor J. Bracken Lee fought against any federal programs coming in to the city. However, Baldwin finally persuaded me to meet with Commissioner Barker, who had the reputation of being ultra-conservative but quickly became a strong advocate for the creation of the Central City Neighborhood. As we walked through the neighborhood, seeing the run-down housing and broken windows, he turned to me and said, "I know where my children can play, but where do the children who live here play? We need that center, and do you mind if we add a swimming pool?"

It was then the neighborhood council launched cleanup, fix-up and fundraising efforts to show the community that it was willing to help improve the neighborhood and the lives of its neighbors. Members knew they needed to gain the support — the vote — from the City Commission to obtain the one-third matching funds for the project. All commissioners became involved, assisted in the neighborhood projects and eventually garnered the necessary public support for the contribution the city had to give to the project. With help and editorial support from our local newspapers, the residents were able to do it. The deal was sealed when Katina Kyremas, a longtime icon of the neighborhood, donated a piece of property she owned where the center now stands.

What it shows is that if change is going to come about, it starts at the grass roots. Central City Center stands as a symbol of what the power of people can do who have hope, a dream and the perseverance to make it a reality.

A Utah native, John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations; been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch; served on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards; and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and as a member of the commission on Hispanic education. E-mail: [email protected]