Neighborhood Heroes: Sharing a passion for Walnut Hills

Walking down McMillan Avenue in Walnut Hills, you probably will notice a crumbling building with boarded-up windows, but you’ll also see stone pavers being laid for a community park and urban gardens being prepared for spring plantings. You’ll see neighbors enjoying each other’s company at Fireside Pizza and students savoring after-school treats at Cafe DeSales.

By almost all measures, Walnut Hills is a neighborhood on the rise. Just click elsewhere on the Soapbox site to find a new story about efforts by the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation to renovate a historic bank building on Madison Road and a 100-year-old public comfort station on McMillan. Various partnerships have yielded a huge number of community health and wellness initiatives. Even the alleys are receiving some TLC.
Walnut Hills’ close proximity to downtown and rich history surely are among its key assets, but the community’s real strength lies in the diverse and dedicated residents who call Walnut Hills home.

Soapbox recently started a new series, “Neighborhood Heroes,” to celebrate everyday folks who do what they can do to make their corners of the world better and as a result become the heartbeat of their communities. We turn our attention this month to three amazing individuals in Walnut Hills whose passion is as much a catalyst for the neighborhood’s rise as any redevelopment project or new business.

Kathy Atkinson

“We are family to each other,” Kathy Atkinson says, speaking of the residents of Walnut Hills. “A blended, sometimes dysfunctional family, but family nonetheless.” 
If the neighborhood is a family, Atkinson might be the matriarch. For the last 20 years she’s supported, nurtured and loved the people of Walnut Hills as if they were her own, and her impact is far-reaching. 
Atkinson saved the community’s pool in 2010 by helping raise $63,000, a feat few thought possible. She helped restore the business district by fighting to make Taft and McMillan two-way streets, a change that brought patrons to dozens of formerly struggling businesses and sparked community momentum. She even ran for Cincinnati City Council to represent the needs of neighborhoods.

But ask Atkinson what makes her proudest, and she’ll answer with one word.
“Latoya,” she says with tears in her eyes. “I am most proud of Latoya.”
Latoya was just 10 when she wandered into the homework room Atkinson coordinated as program director for Victory Neighborhood Services in 2006, but she’d already endured many challenges. Her brother and uncle were in and out of prison on drug charges, and her mother struggled to support the family. 
Her future looked bleak, but Atkinson’s afterschool program allowed Latoya to see new possibilities for herself. She was inspired by the St. Ursula Academy students who helped with the program and decided she wanted to be just like them. Kathy wanted to help her get there. The duo worked diligently for years to prepare for the academic and behavioral rigors of St. Ursula.

In the end, it wasn’t enough to secure Latoya’s acceptance.
That could have been then end of the story. Latoya could have continued down the same destructive path as her brother.

“That’s when our long and arduous time at Withrow began,” Kathy says, chuckling. “It was an incredible education (for me) to see how difficult it is for kids with hopes and dreams but without other supports.”   
Latoya struggled in high school, but with Atkinson’s help she didn’t give up. She graduated, became certified as a nursing assistant, got a good job as a patient care attendant at UC Health and now attends nursing school. She is making a life for herself that may have never been possible without Atkinson in her corner.
“Kathy wants people to succeed, works with them and invests in them a lot,” says Debra Love, who met Atkinson while doing community service at Mercy Neighborhood Ministries, where Atkinson is the Director of Education and Community Relations. “She saw more in me and something greater for me.”

Atkinson helped Love get a job and encouraged her to continue her education. Love would earn a bachelor’s degree in social work from Xavier University and now follows in Atkinson’s footsteps, empowering women in a work readiness program.
“I am just one of the many seeds Kathy’s placed,” Love says.
“When I moved here I had no idea all of this would unfold,” Atkinson says. “This is home … because Walnut Hills welcomed me and let me belong. This is family.”

Roy Green
Roy Green moved to Walnut Hills with his wife in 1963 after leaving the service, but it was another 30 years before he transformed into the community leader he is today.
“When I used to work, all I did was get up and go to work,” he says. “I didn’t pay much attention to the neighborhood, but when I retired all that changed.”
Green left his job as a Post Office manager in 1992, looking forward to a new phase of life. He began going on walks and was fascinated by the uniqueness of each building and home in his neighborhood.

The more time he spent walking, the more he appreciated his friendly and diverse community. But his walks also put him face to face with some of Walnut Hills’ challenges.
“There was a time when you could barely make it down the street because there was so much trash,” Green says. “And we had a terrible situation with McMillan Avenue. The dope boys would hang out there, and this made people not want to go to the stores.”
He decided to join the Walnut Hills Area Council and has since served as secretary, treasurer and vice president for the organization. About 10 years ago he was tapped to lead the neighborhood’s new Citizens on Patrol Program (COPP), giving him the opportunity to clean up Walnut Hills both literally and figuratively.
COPP volunteers became the eyes and ears of the police, reporting suspicious behavior and checking in on businesses where there had been multiple police calls. They even worked to repeal liquor licenses at the more troublesome establishments.
“We went to Columbus to get them closed down in some cases,” Green says, adding that the “dope boys” no longer control the streets. “The vast difference from when we started until now makes me feel really good.”
COPP volunteers also created an environment of selflessness that fosters neighborhood pride, helping get potholes fixed and even returning deserted shopping carts to stores.
“We decided to pick up trash as we walked,” Green says. “I actually think my volunteers clean up more garbage than the city does.”

Green helped organize a community-wide cleanup. In their first year, 1994, volunteers collected over 400 discarded tires and 400 bags of trash. Community appreciation began to grow, as did the number of residents pitching in to help. Ten years later, the amount collected during the annual event dropped by about 75 percent.    
At 76, Green still loves to walk the neighborhood, but health problems make his walks and overall efforts increasingly difficult. He’s eager to find young reinforcements and has advice for them.  
“Join Citizens on Patrol, because you get a chance to know your neighbors,” he says. “You’ll get wrapped up in it. It just kind of takes you and gets under your skin. You’ll see that Walnut Hills has a lot going for it that you’re just not aware of. It gives you hope for the future.”

Jena Bradley
In June 2013, Jena Bradley had just graduated from Northern Kentucky University and was working as an intern in Mayor Mark Mallory’s office. She had the typical intern job description: Do what no one else wants to do, which included attending community council meetings.

Bradley had already participated in several of these monotonous, poorly attended events when the time came to visit Walnut Hills. She was pleasantly surprised by what she witnessed.
“The volunteers actually seemed to reflect the diversity of the neighborhood,” Bradley says. “There were 50 people on a Thursday night who had lived in the neighborhood from two years to 50.”

She met enthusiastic residents who were getting things done.  “Within a few weeks I moved there,” she says. 
Her new home was above the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, and on her first day as a resident they hosted a neighborhood meet-up. 

“There was a food truck downstairs, lots of neighbors mingling, and I just thought it was the coolest thing,” Bradley says.

A week later she volunteered for her first Walnut Hills event.
Since that time, Bradley has gotten involved in the neighborhood at every opportunity. She worked at the Cincinnati Street Food Festival, served on the festival committee, participated in the neighborhood clean-up and helped with a building day for Green Man Park.

“There is always one more thing I could do,” Bradley says. “If I had all the time in the world and money was no object, I’d spend all my time volunteering for Walnut Hills. All of it.”
At age 24, Bradley credits the neighborhood’s more seasoned volunteers with teaching her what community development is all about.
“I’ve learned from them that change doesn’t happen overnight, either up or down,” Bradley says. “Be patient and know that your passion will help the neighborhood grow over time. Their hearts are so in it. Someday I want to have that wealth of knowledge and share it with everyone like they do.”
Bradley is in the early stages of becoming a future leader in Walnut Hills, and she wants other young residents to join her.

“It starts with meeting your neighbors,” she advises. “They’ve hopefully made connections and can connect you. You have to be OK getting out of your comfort zone. And you can’t expect opportunities to arrive at your door in the form of a food truck. …  I just got lucky.”

Tell us about heroes in your neighborhood: Read the previous Neighborhood Heroes profile of Pleasant Ridge here. Send suggestions for future profile stories to [email protected].
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Read more articles by Holly End.

Holly End is a freelance writer and published author from Pleasant Ridge.