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There isn’t much that Wilma Moore doesn’t know about Highland, one of the city of Spartanburg’s most economically challenged neighborhoods.
It’s where she grew up playing with neighborhood children on sidewalks and atop hills. It’s where she later spent several years living on the streets while battling a drug addiction. It’s where her mother has spent 47 years in the same house on Beacon Street.
And it’s where Moore, 57, is now embedded as a community outreach advocate to connect families to financial stability resources with the goal of breaking generational poverty and creating long-term neighborhood change.
“I love this neighborhood. I made friends here, and I met the love of my life who’s from this neighborhood,” Moore said. “I love the people here. I just want to preserve what I grew to love about this neighborhood. I want people to know I am here and I am available to help.”
Highland is generally bounded by West Main Street to the north, John B. White Boulevard to the west, Forest Street to the east and Fairforest Creek to the south.
The neighborhood of about 1,700 residents is one of Spartanburg’s most concentrated areas of poverty, troubled with a high volume of public housing and a low annual median income.
The neighborhood has the lowest median income in Spartanburg County — $11,708 — according to 2015 U.S. Census data, the latest available. Incomes haven’t increased much over the past few years, averaging $9,912 in 2014 and $9,868 in 2013, based on the data.
Moore said Highland has changed since her family moved there when she was 10 years old, and the community is not as close-knit as it used to be.
“It used to be people on their porch hollering back and forth and talking to neighbors, and people walking the streets and it was very homey,” she said. “Now it seems the neighborhood is disconnected, even with the different apartment complexes.”
This disconnection is something Moore is hoping to remedy through her new role.
The pilot position was created through a partnership with the city, United Way of the Piedmont, Spartanburg Housing Authority and the Bethlehem Center, where Moore has an office. The position already is funded for up to three years and falls under the umbrella of United Way’s financial stability initiative, which seeks to reduce barriers to self-sufficiency for Spartanburg children and their families.
Heather Witt, vice president of community and collective impact with United Way of the Piedmont, said when the organization was considering candidates for the position, Moore’s genuine passion and dedication to bettering Highland was evident.
“Essentially, we’re responding to a community need,” Witt said. “Even though we’re rich with resources, a lot of communities aren’t aware or know how to connect to those resources, and Wilma is the conduit to connect people to service providers.”
Part of Moore’s assignment is to put residents in touch with community resources they may not know or ask about. These include SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, medical care services, food pantry amenities and resources from other United Way partner agencies.
Mitch Kennedy, the city’s community services director who has worked closely with Spartanburg’s neighborhoods for nearly 13 years, said community advocacy is not just about connecting people to resources, but also about building trust.
“Any time you’re working in neighborhoods, no matter what type of neighborhood, there are challenges. Having someone like Wilma who’s from the neighborhood and who is actually knowledgeable about what’s out there from a resources standpoint can connect those dots,” he said. “She is able to build relationships and establish trust at a neighborhood level.”
To help create a stronger sense of community in Highland, Moore is working with the Highland Neighborhood Association to plan four social gatherings that resemble old-fashioned block parties with games and food. The first is planned for March 29 at the Norris Ridge apartment complex.
The aim of each block party is to get residents out of their homes and communicating, while giving the neighborhood a bigger presence in the community, Moore said.
“I’m trying to let the residents realize that we’re still one neighborhood, we’re still one Highland,” she said. “We should stay closer and communicate more and be more open to our neighbors to try to solidify the neighborhood.”
City leaders believe there is a potential to create an improvement effort in Highland similar to the Northside, where the city is working in cooperation with residents and public and private partners to implement extensive neighborhood change.
A working group of stakeholders in Highland has been meeting regularly since December 2015 to discuss the challenges facing the neighborhood and potential strategies for improving it.
One of Highland’s priorities is creating a master transformation plan. Without one, residents are anxious about what’s next.
“Wilma will help manage those concerns and anxiety about what’s to come,” Kennedy said. “There’s great value in having someone whose priority is what’s best for the neighborhood and the people living in that neighborhood.”
Moore’s Highland roots aren’t the only motivation she has for helping her beloved neighborhood and its residents move forward.
In November, her 19-year-old son, Kiyounnie Jackson, was shot and killed outside Highland, not far from home.
Moore said her son loved the neighborhood and taking care of the people there, so she is fulfilling her new community role in his honor.
“There’s a stigma about Highland — drugs and crime. But I’d say 90 percent of the things that happen here as far as drugs and the criminal activity is from people that don’t even live over here,” she said. “We just want to take our neighborhood back, where our kids can play like I used to play out here. We want a safe, vibrant neighborhood.”
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