PAWTUCKET — Sometimes it pays to take a complaint to the top. Twelve-year-old Sara Arno was becoming dismayed by what she was finding at the Elizabeth Baldwin Elementary School playground when she would bring her younger brother and sister. Litter, broken glass, and beer bottles were bad enough, but there were also kids her own age and older teenagers who were hanging around, smoking, drinking and sometimes harassing the younger children.
After finding a half-empty beer bottle next to the slide which her brother often uses, she decided to take action, and penned a letter to Mayor Donald Grebien. That letter sparked a prompt playground clean-up and additional police presence, and also earned Arno a well-deserved moment in the local spotlight.
Arno outlined the problems at the playground to the mayor and wrote, “What I'm trying to tell you in this letter is we need to clean the streets of Pawtucket. I have tried to get people together to help our world and clean our streets but no one will listen to me.” She further asked, “Mr. Mayor, please help me to get a group of people together so we can make our city a better city.” She signed off, “Thank you, Your Citizen, Sara Arno.”
After Arno's letter was brought to the attention of Grebien and Police Chief Paul King, the two officials decided that a clean-up fit perfectly with the Pawtucket Police Department's annual Community Works summer program. Funded by federal and state grants, Community Works involves local teens, ages 14 to 17, in projects that encourage community involvement, neighborhood pride and leadership skills. The Community Works youths were quickly dispatched to the Baldwin playground on Whitman Street to pick up the litter and tidy up the area.
The police chief also said that police officers, both on bike patrols and regular patrols, would be doing more monitoring of the Baldwin playground, especially during the nighttime hours. He said that the seasonal bike patrols, also paid for by federal grants, regularly involve a loop that includes the neighborhood around the Baldwin School and the West Avenue and Harrison Street area. He said other bike patrols regularly travel down Broadway and check on the John Street playground.
King said, however, that many of the complaints about litter and youths loitering at Baldwin and some of the other city playgrounds and recreation areas spring from the current economy. With so many teens jobless this summer, there are more who are just “hanging around” their neighborhoods. “They have no jobs and no money for a car, or the movies, or anything like that, so they hang out near their homes. And then maybe somebody gets a hold of a beer...It becomes a problem, and it scares some of the younger kids,” said the police chief.
In the case of Arno's complaints about the Baldwin playground, King added, “Fortunately, we were able to marry a couple of federal programs with a headache.”
Mayor Donald Grebien joined King, Police Majors Arthur Martins and Bruce Moreau, and the Community Works team at the Baldwin playground on Tuesday morning for a media event to honor Arno and her request for help. Grebien told Arno that he was “very honored” that she had taken the time to call attention to the problems at the playground and to request the city's help. Noting that she was also volunteering to join the clean-up team, he thanked her, saying, “I know you're doing this on your own time.” Grebien also met and chatted with the youths who are part of this summer's Community Works team.
Grebien told The Times that with the current budget situation, he recognizes that “the city has a lot of shortcomings.” “But,” he added, “This was something that matched up perfectly with what our Community Works program does.”
He said that upon receipt of Arno's letter, he also had the police chief look into the matter.
Sara Arno, the daughter of Cory and Kelli Arno of West Avenue, said that during this summer, she has been been frequently bringing her 10-year-old sister, Megan, and 4-year-old brother, Cory, to the playground, which is near their house. She said she was especially concerned about the litter and beer bottles because her brother is at an age where he puts things in his mouth. She also said she sees “kids my age smoking,” and other teens using foul language.
Arno said she decided to write to the mayor because she thought he might be able to do something. “I want this place to be safe. I love my city, but I'm upset at all the trash and people saying nasty things,” she said. Heading to the 7th grade this fall at Slater Junior High School, Arno added that she dreams of one day joining the U.S. Air Force because “I want to fight for my country.”
Cory Arno, a Pawtucket native, noted that he had attended the Baldwin Elementary School himself as a youngster, but said that the litter and teen loitering at the playground seems to have gotten out of hand. He said he was happy to see his daughter take the initiative to write to the mayor. “She wants to change the world,” he said, with a smile
Kelli Arno added that she was pleasantly surprised to get a letter of response from the mayor within a couple of days. “I know they have a lot of other things to do at City Hall right now,” she noted.
Police Lt. Napolean Gonsalves, who is in charge of the Community Works program, said the Baldwin playground clean-up fit perfectly with other projects that the teen volunteers have been doing. As part of the program, the youths have been picking up trash and litter at Slater Park and Vets Park, helped out at the Salvation Army food pantry and the Pawtucket Soup Kitchen at St. Joseph's Church, volunteered at the Leon Mathieu Senior Center and provided tutoring and assistance for elementary school children.
At the end of the Community Works program, which also involves some classroom work with the Community Police Unit and discussions on topics like public safety, conflict resolution, developing leadership skills, and building community spirit, the students receive a certificate and a $250 stipend, Gonsalves said. The students are recommended for the program through the Pawtucket School Department following an application process.