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Citizen action 

Organizing to better the community

Many people would like to do something impactful for their block, neighborhood, or village, but don't know where to begin or how to sustain it. Around the region, though, residents have been organizing to improve their community, and they can provide inspiration. Among them: Rochester resident John Boutet, who is pushing for a return to neighborhood schools in the city; Mark Renfro and his wife, Pam, and members of their Fairport church, who collect unharvested fruits and vegetables for people who need them; and Sandy Schneible and Pilar McKay, who are helping reinvigorate Perry, a community in Wyoming County, south of Rochester.

Though their stories are different, each of them started their work based on a personal conviction, focused on an issue that was extremely important to them. And they've sustained their effort by collaborating with others.

Five years ago, the Rochester school district planned to close School 16, a small elementary school in the southwest section of the city. The building was among the school district's oldest, and it would cost too much to remodel it, district officials said.

But John Boutet and a group of residents and parents in the southwest neighborhoods weren't having it. Closing the school, they said, would create a hole in the community and discourage families from staying in the city.

They organized, lobbied the superintendent, spoke at school board meetings, and convinced the district not only to keep the school open, but to remodel it. That was only one part of much larger plan, though.

"We need to get back to neighborhood schools as much as possible," Boutet says. "It's much harder for many of our parents to participate in their child's education when their school is across town. And neighborhood schools strengthen communities."

Boutet and others pushed school officials for an analysis of how students and families choose schools. A desire for bus transportation was a key reason why parents didn't select a school near their home, so the Education Committee for the Southwest Community Council created an online petition to send to state lawmakers seeking busing for all students.

The Fairport United Methodist Church had been distributing donated potatoes to needy families and food pantries, but they wanted to do more. And that led to a major gleaning operation, says Mark Renfro, and his wife Pam.

Gleaning refers to going to farm fields and orchards and collecting the fruits and vegetables left after harvest to rot. There weren't many large-scale farms in Monroe County that made gleaning practical, but the Renfros learned about Bejo Seeds in Geneva, which develops varietal seeds and sells them by displaying the fresh produce from the seeds. After the produce is shown, it becomes available to the Renfros.

Every Saturday from August through November, the Renfros and a group of volunteers gather tomatoes, beets, cabbage, onions, squash, and cucumbers as they are available take them to Foodlink for distribution throughout the Rochester region.

(To volunteer: mrenfro53@gmail.com.)

Sandy Schneible and Pilar McKay spent their early years in Perry, New York. After college and careers in other parts of the country, including metros like Washington and Los Angeles, they returned to Perry, attracted by its low cost of living the small, rural-community lifestyle.

They also saw business and creative opportunities that they could pursue in a small town trying to reinvent itself that weren't as accessible in a large city, McKay says.

Schneible started her own marketing and design company, littleHive LLC, and both women began supporting the Perry Main Street Association's efforts to reinvigorate the village. The association looked at ways to support local businesses and start new ones by updating Main Street and promoting Perry's assets, including Silver Lake and the town's proximity to Letchworth Park, says Schneible.

But building a sustainable future for a rural town like Perry also meant making the town interesting and cool, which led to some rethinking about arts and culture, says McKay. She co-founded Shake on the Lake, Silver Lake's resident Shakespeare Company, with another Perry native, Josh Rice. The company held its first season in 2012.

Rice also founded the New York State Puppet Festival, which had its inaugural run last summer and drew internationally recognized puppet masters.

"There are hurdles to overcome bringing arts and culture to a rural community, but the hurdles are nowhere as large as they are in a big city," McKay says.

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