MUSCATINE — On a rainy November afternoon, in a small office building on Mulberry Avenue, Kas Kelly hears a bang on her door. She calls for the knocker to enter.
A longtime neighbor, with a cane and stocking cap walks in the room, ready to share good news. His heels lift off the floor as he speaks, the elation in his voice seemingly causing his body to float. He tells Kelly he is now cancer free. With tears in her eyes, Kelly relishes in the moment.
A visit like the one on Thursday afternoon is all too common for Kelly. For 20 years, the office, at 614 Mulberry Ave., has been a safe space for residents to come and talk about their lives, violence, crime and other issues throughout the city.
Because of a lack of funding, Kelly’s program, Muscatine Safe Streets, is expected to close by the end of the month. Kelly, the executive director, said if she was handed a check today, it is possible Safe Streets would continue. But for now, she is clearing out her office and planning for the future.
Kelly left her windows open on a warm fall afternoon around 21 years ago. The neighborhood was growing darker and she was preparing to turn in for the night, when she heard several loud bangs outside her window.
“When you see people on T.V., how they will hit the floor and spider crawl across the floor, that is real, I did that,” Kelly said. “I’m a farm girl. I know what gun shots are.”
Before she could dial 911, her phone rang. She jumped, her heart beating, and then she answered. Her neighbor, equally frightened, claimed people were shooting inside of her house. Kelly calmed her neighbor down and they both called the police.
“That was the beginning of our neighborhood organization; that is what got us started,” she said.
Along with gun violence, 20 years ago, Kelly said, some of the major problems were graffiti and littering. Residents began to gather together to address the issues, eventually forming neighborhood volunteer groups, which transformed into the city-wide program, Safe Streets.
16 organized groups
In Kelly’s office, a color-coded map hangs on the wall, outlining different areas of Muscatine. Since its inception, Safe Streets has transformed into a network of 16 organized neighborhoods, and Kelly said each neighborhood has its own set of unique problems.
“One neighborhood is mostly men, which is unusual because most are just women,” she said. “One is just concerned about children or child safety, so they make sure there are programs for kids to do. Another one is just worried about trash so they do clean ups and that type of thing.”
Over the past two decades, residents have gathered to share their feelings after shootings. Neighbors have come together to make community action plans. Kelly and others have started programs to keep children off the streets and entertained after school.
While Kelly said the successes of Safe Streets can be hard to measure, over the years, Kelly has seen far less trash and graffiti throughout Muscatine.
“Twenty years ago, everywhere you looked, there was graffiti, everywhere,” she said. “Now somebody calls me and wants to do a graffiti paint-out, like the Boy Scouts wanting to do community service. But now I’m really hard-pressed to find any. And that’s a huge success.”
Kelly said the program has morphed as the issues change. Around eight years ago, Kelly helped organize the first Community Wide Block Party, where now has as many as 1,000 people attend and 32 agencies support each year.
Safe Streets also has helped form the Muscatine Network Consortium, which draws business leaders, professionals and job-seekers from across the state to network and talk about their industries. Kelly said the consortium has 200 members and sends out hundreds of emails a month.
Kelly has helped neighbors place street lights through Muscatine Power & Water’s program, has offered safe space for latchkey students after school and helped children finish their community service hours, some as young as 10 years old.
A certified civil, family and divorce mediator, Kelly has also performed neighborhood mediations, helping residents talk through their problems and reach solutions.
“You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your neighbors,” Kelly said, with a laugh.
While Safe Streets has tackled issues as serious as gun violence and burglaries, Kelly takes pride in the program’s small success, too.
“It’s hard to measure outcomes because the best outcome is that you feel safe in your home,” Kelly said. “But to me, to see a child walking down the street and pulling out a piece of gum, and then they take the wrapper and put it in their pocket, that is a success for me. Because they’re not throwing it on the ground. It starts young and it starts little. Things like that are just amazing to me.”
Over recent years, Muscatine Safe Streets has been largely funded out of Kelly’s pocket. She remembers a time when the savings account balance was 35 cents.
But she feels grateful for the support the program has received. HNI purchased the building on Mulberry Avenue and donated it to the city, which has allowed Kelly to use it as an office space. The group has received donations from HNI Corp., United Way, Grain Processing Corporation, as well as state and local grants.
Some neighborhood groups have their own bank accounts, and the money is donated to the VFW, Salvation Army and other organizations.
Kelly will keep the program’s nonprofit status and name, but for now, funding and support is too little for Safe Streets to continue.
“I could walk out the door and if next week somebody hands me $100,000, I’d say I want the key back,” she said. “I would be back ... Right now, it’s a dance without a partner.”
20 years of files
Tears swell in Kelly’s eyes as she plans how to pack up her office and close her door one last time.
“This is 20 years of files and neighborhood issues where people have asked for help,” she said.
Knowing the program will end in a few weeks, Kelly encourages Muscatine residents to place more lighting on their streets, be aware of issues and report incidents to the police. And she finds comfort knowing Muscatine is cleaner, brighter and more secure than when she started the program.
“I hope people feel better because every section in town is better than it was 20 years ago because of neighborhood members who have worked so hard to make it a success,” Kelly said. “Neighborhoods are safer and people are more aware. There are bad moments, of course there are. There are drugs in town, of course there are. But if you stay here and help everybody to make this a better place, then everybody is going to have a better environment to live in.”