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Delaware Headlines

Local nonprofit works to light the way to safer, stronger communities

Gabrielle Lantieri
West Side Grows

An initiative to shine a light on neighborhoods in need and help them diminish crime while building a sense of community is making progress up and down the First State.

It’s called “Lights On” and comes from a group called the Delaware Help Initiative

Contributor Larry Nagengast takes a closer look at this group and what it’s doing.

From Laurel to Claymont, struggling communities are getting brighter, and feeling a little safer, thanks to the work of a 4-year-old Dover-based nonprofit, the Delaware Help Initiative.

Starting in Dover in 2017 as part of the city’s Restoring Central Dover campaign, the Help Initiative created “Lights On Dover Strong,” a program to install energy-efficient LED bulbs on the front porches and solar-powered motion-detected lighting in the rear of more than 350 homes in targeted neighborhoods.

“They’re dedicated folks,” Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen said of Help Initiative leaders Charles Kistler and Harold Stafford. “They understand that an important part of community revitalization is making the community safe and building trust.”

Chanda Jackson, community engagement coordinator for NCALL, a nonprofit that Christiansen credits with pulling together the funding to get the revitalization started, recalls meeting Kistler and Stafford at a Restoring Central Dover committee meeting in early 2017. “They asked, ‘what can we do?’ not only for lighting up the community but building relationships as well.”

"They're dedicated folks. They understand that an important part of community revitalization is making the community safe and building trust." - Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen

Stafford and Kistler then pitched their plan to the mayor: replace incandescent bulbs on outdoor fixtures with LED lights and install solar-powered motion detectors in the rear of each home. It was a relatively simple, straightforward approach: no electrical work required, just swapping bulbs and attaching motion detectors.

But the offer would require residents to make a commitment, Stafford said. They had to promise to keep the motion detectors on, tell their neighbors about the program, call police if they noticed suspicious activity and attend a workshop on energy efficiency. 

The project targeted a onetime working-class neighborhood south of Division Street between Governors Avenue and the railroad tracks that had been in decline and was experiencing increases in crime and drug traffic, Christiansen said.

“When we got started, it took residents a couple of weeks to warm up to us,” Stafford says. “Then they started coming up to us, asking when we were going to work on their street.”

Crime rates have dropped in the neighborhood, but not as much as the city might have liked. However, the project’s overall impact was positive enough to spur the city to install new streetlights and security cameras in the area, the mayor said.

Coupled with new affordable housing and other improvements in the Restoring Central Dover campaign, “Lights On” has been a positive factor in helping promote the city’s overall economic development prospects, Christiansen said.

The project’s success drew the attention of officials in Seaford, who organized their own “Lights On” campaign and brought in the Help Initiative to handle installations at nearly 450 residences.

Help Initiative targeted “underserved, challenged areas” on the city’s east side and “the lighting improvements made a huge difference,” City Manager Charles Anderson said. “We hope to do the west side in the future.”

After Seaford came Milford, then Laurel and Georgetown.

"Installing lights on and around a property can help dissuade incidents like trespassing, package thefts or burglaries. It can also contribute to an increased sense of comfort for residents and visitors." says Wilm. Police Communications Dir. David Karas

Now the Help Initiative is shining its light upstate – on Wilmington’s West Side and in two communities north of the city, Edgemoor Gardens and Knollwood.

“While perhaps a simple step, installing lights on and around a property can help dissuade incidents like trespassing, package thefts or burglaries. It can also contribute to an increased sense of comfort for residents and visitors, and can support overall neighborhood safety,” says David Karas, policy and communications director for the Wilmington Police Department.

With the program’s relatively short history and its geographic limitation to targeted areas, it’s too soon to make broad conclusions about its impact on crime, but Edward Huey, administrative lieutenant with the Milford Police Department, says there are fewer thefts and criminal mischief incidents in the areas where lights have been installed. At the same time, there have been more reports of found property, and more calls from residents who observe suspicious activity.

“Lights help residents see more in the neighborhood. They help residents identify things that are suspicious,” Huey says.

West Side Grows Together, the community redevelopment organization that focuses on the section of Wilmington bordered by Interstate 95, Pennsylvania Avenue, the B&O railroad tracks and Lancaster Avenue, brought the Help Initiative to the city a little more than a year ago, according to Sarah Lester, whose role as president and CEO of the Cornerstone West Community Development Corporation, puts her at the center of the area’s redevelopment projects.

“A lot of our work is focused on clean and safe strategies,” Lester says, and residents of the area between Lancaster Avenue and Fourth Street, especially near Judy Johnson Park, frequently mentioned that their neighborhood seemed quite dark.

Credit Gabrielle Lantieri / West Side Grows Together/Cornerstone West Community Development Corporation
West Side Grows Together/Cornerstone West Community Development Corporation
Delaware Help Initiative workers install LED lights on Wilmington's West Side

Lester connected with the Help Initiative through NCALL, whose activities in the Dover area mirror what Cornerstone West tries to accomplish on Wilmington’s West Side.

The Help Initiative began the Lights On campaign in Wilmington late last year, but the COVID-19 state of emergency brought the effort to a halt in mid-March. Help Initiative teams returned to the neighborhood this week and expect to wrap up their work by the end of the month. LED bulbs have replaced incandescent lighting at more than 700 housing units already, Lester said.

A separate program funding the installation of 26 security cameras outside area businesses, primarily along Fourth Street, has given both businesses and residents an increased sense of security, says Gabrielle Lantieri, Cornerstone West’s economic development manager.

The lights and cameras empower residents. Lantieri mentioned a woman who lives in an apartment above her business who spotted suspicious activity when she looked out her window to the alleyway below. “She shouted out to him, ‘I can see you now, you’ve got to get out of here.’”

In part because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilmington police haven’t been able to assess the project’s impact on crime in the area, Karas said, but Lester believes residents feel safer than they did before.

In the suburbs, New Castle County police have worked with the Help Initiative in distributing the LED lights and motion detectors in Edgemoor Gardens and Knollwood.

Edgemoor Gardens is “a community in need” that is trying to reestablish itself, says Lt. Gerald Tatum, special operations executive officer with the county police. Knollwood, a three-street community cut off from the rest of Claymont by Interstate 495, has struggled with vandalism and drug dealing issues for years.

When Help Initiative teams began visiting these communities in September, county police officers accompanied them, Tatum said. The idea behind this approach was to do more than talk about safety, but also to try to establish stronger police-community relationships, just like what has occurred in other areas where Help Initiative has worked. “We had an opportunity to interact with the youth, and with the adults as well,” he said.

"We should have an impact on crime, residents feel safer and save on their utility bills. And communities build a stronger relationship with the local police." Cornerstone West Community Development Corporation CEO Sara Lester

While the Help Initiative’s most visible work brightens neighborhoods, it provides other free services to residents. Stafford says team members will replace old aerators on kitchen and bathroom faucets and install energy-efficient shower heads as well. They will also check water heaters to make sure the temperature is set for 120 to 125 degrees, the level recommended for safe and efficient operation, and provide LED bulbs for interior lighting.

The Help Initiative also has a subcontractor available to do energy audits and arrangements with other subcontractors licensed to repair or replace home heating systems. If improvements to improve efficiency are suggested, the agency can guide residents in finding contractors to do the work and in accessing funding – either low-interest loans or grants – to pay for the projects.

The Help Initiative relies on a variety of grant programs to perform its work. The Dover project was funded largely through the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation grant that helped underwrite the overall Restoring Central Dover campaign. Subsequent “Lights On” projects have received much of their funding through Energize Delaware, a nonprofit whose mission is to provide access to low-cost innovative technologies in heating, cooling, ventilation and insulation. Stafford estimates the cost of LED bulbs, motion detectors and related supplies at $100 per residence.

For the energy audits, the Help Initiative is paid as a subcontractor for another business, FranklinEnergy Delaware, which is also funded by Energize Delaware. Federal funds funneled through state agencies cover other costs, Stafford says. Weatherization funds come through the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, and heating system repair and replacement funds come through the Department of Health and Social Services.

With its broadened range of services, the Help Initiative serves communities and residents in multiple ways, Stafford says.

At West Side Grows Together, Lester concurs.

“We should have an impact on crime, residents feel safer and save on their utility bills,” she says, “and communities build a stronger relationship with the local police."