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When community development runs on people power

The personal touch, some TLC, a patient explanation and a campaign to pay it forward.

These are all ways that some cities and towns are seeing community development successes through direct interactions between municipal staff members and residents.

Town of Mount Pleasant Planning College
The Department of Planning and Development for the Town of Mount Pleasant
created Planning College for residents to learn about land use, zoning,
permitting and other topics. Photo: Town of Mount Pleasant.

In the Town of Mount Pleasant, the pace of growth brought frequent public debates and questions over zoning and development decisions. So the Department of Planning and Development created the bi-annual Planning College, a two-semester program that familiarized residents with the land use planning, zoning, development and permitting process. The Planning College helped residents make sense of the rules, procedures and roles of various boards, and ultimately act as ambassadors for the town.

The department also began holding Meet and Greet events that involved building inspectors and staff who informed residents about town facilities and services and generated interest in the Planning College.

One of the initial purposes of the town's public outreach program was for residents to be able to put a face with a name and meet town staff members in person, said Christiane Farrell, director of Mount Pleasant's planning and development department.

"With so much communication now being through emails and other digital means, we have limited opportunities to speak with and meet people in person. Meet and Greet allows our residents to meet staff and to spend time asking questions and learning more about our role in the community," she said.

"Planning College is another opportunity where residents can participate and where they can learn more about planning processes directly from staff over the course of about 10 weeks. In building these personal relationships and also by helping residents build knowledge and understanding of the process, we can build a sense of community and encourage greater civic engagement."

In the City of Columbia, community development staff held a four-hour homebuyer workshop to help residents with navigating the home buying process, honing money management skills, understanding credit and getting a mortgage loan. The city holds workshops several times a year to educate the public about the benefits of owning a home. 

"The City of Columbia's Community Development Department understands that homeownership is still one of the best ways families can build generational wealth," said Gloria Saeed, the city's director of community development.

"Homeownership contributes toward building strong communities and neighborhoods by providing tax revenues that are used to improve our schools, maintain roads and infrastructure and deliver basic service needs, such as police and fire protection."

'Kindness is explosive'
In May, employees of the City of Travelers Rest and its police department collected $150 among themselves to pay the power bill of a resident who had been arrested for allegedly trying to exchange stolen goods for cash at a retail store.

However, in the course of the arrest, the officer realized the woman needed help. She said her ex-boyfriend had assaulted her and her 6-year-old child, and she had to quit her job because she had no one at home to take care of her children. She said her electricity was about to be shut off because she could not pay her bill.

The officer's actions were part of something larger, however. In Travelers Rest, the police department has taken the lead on a new community building initiative.

Just a few days before the arrest, the police officer, who asked not to be named, attended a workshop put on by Leon Logothetis, a motivational speaker who hosts the "The Kindness Diaries" TV show on Netflix and is promoting the concept of kindness worldwide.

"The Kindness Diaries" host Leon Logothetis conducting workshop at Travelers Rest City Hall
"The Kindness Diaries" host Leon Logothetis conducted a kindness
workshop at Travelers Rest City Hall. Photo: City of Travelers Rest.

"I thought of Leon and his speech (during the arrest)," recalled the officer. But he said he would have helped the woman regardless of the workshop, because, he said, helping someone in need is human nature.

Travelers Rest Police Capt. Randy Fisher coordinated the workshop with Logothetis and has led the department's own kindness campaign, which includes passing out cards that encourage recipients to commit an act of kindness and then pass the card along to someone else.

"If they email us, we'll ask where the kindness took place, so we can map them and see how far they went," said Fisher, who has created a website, thekindnessfactor.com.

He detailed future plans, including a Kindness Square and Kindness Café and Bicycle Emporium. The square is envisioned to be a landscaped sitting area with benches and tables where residents may play chess or use as a gathering space. The café would function similar to a police substation, where young people could learn how to repair bikes, and those in need might receive refurbished bikes.

"Kindness is explosive, and connecting with the community we serve should be our first priority," Fisher said. "The rest will fall into place from there."