Thursday, December 19, 2013

Neighbors turn eyesore into place children can play

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave
December 19, 2013

Brenda Hunt (in red) and BC Foundation members in Franklin Project (Photo by Erik Holladay,

Zinta Aistars has the story of how a blighted city lot became a place where children can play soccer, where they can stay busy rather than get into trouble. It's called the Franklin Project and it's about workers in the surrounding neighborhood who decided to make a difference. 

Visnu Sookhai, a senior research engineer at Post Foods in Battle Creek, passed the vacant lot every day on his way to work on Cliff Street. Filled with trash, overgrown with weeds, a magnet for crime, it was enough to make him want to turn his eyes in the other direction. But he didn’t. He looked. He looked long and hard. And he wasn’t the only one.

At the end of Cliff Street and alongside Main Street, the triangular lot had previously been dotted with crack houses and trash. On its other side, on 20 Newark Avenue, was Franklin Elementary School, with a small, cramped playground that allowed for barely enough room for the children to stretch their legs on recess.

It wasn’t the same elementary school Sookhai had attended as a child in the 1970s, but it was its newer namesake. "I went to the old Franklin School in the fourth grade," Sookhai recalls. "The original school was on Green Street. But it’s a tie to my past, to my childhood when my family moved to the United States from Trinidad. It makes me especially proud to be involved in The Franklin Project today."

Sookhai is one of about 20 people from Post involved in The Franklin Project. It is a project overseen by the Post Foundation of Battle Creek, or PFBC, and PFBC is under the umbrella of the Battle Creek Community Foundation (BCCF), with Brenda Hunt, president and CEO, at its head.

The blighted field was just down the street from Post, and so it was an obvious choice for the Post employees as a project, but they first needed to organize a foundation to oversee such projects. Dwight Carattini, senior production scheduling manager at Post, tells of a conversation he had with his Post colleague, Randy Yother, on a business trip. 

"We were staying at a B&B, sitting on the porch and talking about how great it would be to bring back the Post Foundation. To do that, we needed support from the shop floor as well as from management, so when we got back to the plant, I went to talk to management and Randy went on the shop floor."

Carattini had seen a lot of changes at Post over his 30 years working there: one merger after another, changing headquarters from one city to another. 

"No matter what, we wanted to keep the Post Foundation in Battle Creek, and so we turned to Brenda Hunt at BCCF to help us," says Carattini.

"The Post Foundation got lost in all those mergers and sales," Hunt agrees. "When they called us to help them get started again, BCCF was happy to do so. They were looking for projects to take on and decided to focus on Franklin Elementary."

Helping the community, in fact, is a Post tradition. Keith Cole, retired from Post since 2002 but still working with Post as a contractor, came on board as project manager for The Franklin Project. He’d spent more than 35 years with Post, and he knew the company’s history.

"C.W.  Post, the founder, was a Utopian," Cole says. "He built a Post neighborhood around the plant. His idea was that people could all live together and get along."

The PFBC steering committee began to meet in 2011, and the Post employees, along with partners from the Battle Creek Community Foundation, Battle Creek Public Schools, and the City of Battle Creek, put their heads and hearts together to develop The Franklin Project. 

Cole says: "It started with ..."


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