Ruth Bermudez, right, leads a discussion in the staff room at Horizon Elementary in Everett on Jan. 5. The group is part of Natural Leaders, a volunteer effort for families in the Mukilteo School District, which covers parts of Everett. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Ruth Bermudez, right, leads a discussion in the staff room at Horizon Elementary in Everett on Jan. 5. The group is part of Natural Leaders, a volunteer effort for families in the Mukilteo School District, which covers parts of Everett. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Residents are helping turn Casino Road in a new direction

An initiative backed by a $700,000 grant goes to the community for solutions to the area’s challenges.

EVERETT — A pot was simmering on the stove, with the hominy stew called pozole. Someone carried in a pizza. The cake was on the way.

About a dozen parents gathered Jan. 5 in the staff room at Horizon Elementary on Casino Road. All are volunteers with Natural Leaders, a program that encourages family participation in the Mukilteo School District. The district covers parts of south Everett.

They asked about one another’s Christmas and New Year’s, and made plans for a movie night.

Everyone laughed when one of their toddlers asked: “When are we going to eat?”

The group was led by Ruth Bermudez, 32. She works for the school part time but also is well known for her community involvement on Casino Road.

More recently, she became a member of the leadership council for the Casino Road Initiative, which is managing a $700,000 grant under the oversight of the Community Foundation of Snohomish County. The initiative just announced its first big project: a dramatic shift in the use of space at the Children’s Village at 14 E. Casino Road. The location houses several nonprofits, including the YMCA. They picture a new drop-in community center, adding to what’s in place now.

“They’re going to make things happen,” Bermudez said.

Making connections

Bermudez has lived on Casino Road since middle school. She attended Mariner High School and graduated from Aces High School. Her son is at Aces now, and her two daughters are at Horizon. She wanted to set an example for them about giving back.

About five years ago, she started attending the weekly coffee hour at Hand In Hand, one of the nonprofits at the Children’s Village. She became a volunteer there. She also worked for the Y at that location.

“I’ve always wanted to help my community. I just didn’t know how,” she said. “Hand In Hand gave me the opportunity.”

Now, she is one of 55 people who were asked to help on newly elected Mayor Cassie Franklin’s transition team.

Each step has led to something else, and she became someone others turn to in the neighborhood. They know she can pinpoint where to go, who to call. She also translates, not just English to Spanish, but also a world that can be full of barriers and bureaucracy.

Casino Road is one of the most densely populated stretches of the county. Many young families living there, especially in large apartment complexes, are experiencing multi-generational poverty. They are trying to keep their children safe and making good choices in a time when the city has identified a “devastating” increase in violence involving young people and firearms.

Still, they have a community, and Bermudez is a long-time advocate for the issues she wants to see better addressed. The area lacks locations for people to gather outside of home and work, she said. She also cites concerns about schools and safety, limited access to medical care and mental health services, and the need for job training for adults and teens.

“A lot of the kids, they just need a safe place,” Bermudez said.

And, she added, their parents also want somewhere to connect.

Expanding a hub

There are many, many long-term community partnerships on Casino Road. Some are faith-based, some center around schools and nonprofits, and some are grassroots. For decades, there has been talk about a community center.

The YMCA leases space at the Children’s Village for its Casino Road Community Center and is heading up recent United Way grants for the neighborhood. The Y’s center serves hundreds of people through programs for teenagers, as well as adult education with on-site child care.

The new effort, the Casino Road Initiative, is meant to complement and expand on existing services, said Sara Boyle. She is the initiative coordinator with the Community Foundation. They seek to create a place that has events and programs, but also space to simply hang out, she said.

The initiative started with a small amount of funding in 2016. The following January marked the start of a $700,000, three-year grant from the Whitehorse Foundation, a nonprofit focused on Snohomish County. The group recently brought back the results of their initial research. Volunteers, including Bermudez, conducted more than 130 surveys of families on Casino, mostly during National Night Out in August.

“The No. 1 thing that came up was a space for services and a place we can get together,” Boyle said.

The initiative is starting its second year with the announcement of the community center. Boyle shared the news Jan. 12 at the Hand In Hand coffee hour.

The Children’s Village is owned by ChildStrive, which works with families. ChildStrive will provide one of the buildings on site for the initiative’s community center, Executive Director Jim Welsh said. Someday the entire campus could become part of a cohesive effort, as space is reconfigured from administrative offices to direct services.

The grants in place now will cover the design costs for the new center, Boyle said. The foundation is likely to run a capital campaign for remodeling expenses, with an early estimate of up to $500,000.

The floor plan and feel of the place will be based on input from the people who would be served there, as well as social science research and practices.

“The community is going to have the majority of the decision-making power, from the services and programs they want to the actual physical design of the building,” Boyle said.

On that front, the initiative is working with the Pomegranate Center, a Seattle nonprofit that provides a framework for such projects. Its guidance recognizes that people in a neighborhood know best its strengths and its needs, Boyle said.

A public meeting to gather comments on the project is planned for mid-April, though details aren’t final. The initiative also plans to appoint a community advisory group.

The neighborhood of Casino Road has proven over and over that when the space and the support are made available, people step up for one another, Boyle said. Bermudez has been part of many of those efforts over the years.

“We are working with the community,” Boyle said. “We are not doing this to them or for them.”

“It’s not just a center,” Bermudez said. “It’s like family.”

Training others

Through Natural Leaders, Bermudez and others train parents in south Everett how to get involved and communicate more effectively in their children’s schools.

“Natural Leaders was a big help for me,” Bermudez said. “I’m still shy to speak in public. That’s one of my worst fears, but I can do it.”

Nancy Gonzalez, one of the mothers in the Horizon Elementary group, came to know Bermudez through coffee hour at Hand In Hand.

“She acts to get parents more involved, and that’s how everything started,” Gonzalez said.

At the Jan. 5 meeting, Bermudez put questions to the group in her quiet but take-charge way: “Do you want to participate?” “What does everyone think?” “We agree it is something we can talk more about?”

Natural Leaders is growing. In November, about 30 parents attended a training near Explorer Middle School.

Bermudez told them their mission: We help everyone in the community. We work as a team, especially for people living on Casino Road.

Several of the speakers talked about ways that parents can model their values for their children, with education in particular. That isn’t new territory for Bermudez. She brought her daughters to a gathering of parents outside the Mukilteo School District offices in June, where they advocated for artificial turf for the soccer field at Horizon. The district didn’t go that direction, but her daughters made their voices heard.

One of them, a fourth-grader, recently sent a handwritten letter to the new mayor about safety at Horizon. She received a typed letter back, with a promise to look into it, accompanied by a drawing from the mayor’s daughter.

When you know how to communicate, people listen.

At the end of the November training, the parents gathered for photos, holding their Natural Leaders certificates. Cameras snapped and snapped, and the group began to break up. Someone called out, “Wait! One more!’

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @rikkiking.

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