COLUMBIA — Verna Laboy remembers walking out of her car on a winter night this year to see dark figures moving up and down her driveway. She panicked for a moment before realizing the figures were police officers.
"You scared me," she recalled saying to one of them.
"They looked at me like I wasn't standing there and didn't say a word," Laboy said. "They didn't say, 'Ma'am, get back in the house. It's not safe here.'"
Laboy said that's much different than the close relationship she had with officers back when she ran the Smithton Valley Neighborhood Association and worked with the police to report crime and make her neighborhood safer. Now, Laboy said, she doesn't know any of the police officers in her neighborhood and thinks it's time for that to change.
Strengthening collaboration with the police is one of many reasons Laboy thinks every neighborhood needs an active association that builds relationships with the city and among neighbors. That's why she's organizing the first meeting of the Worley Street Park Neighborhood Association on Thursday night. The meeting is 6:30 p.m. at Calvary Baptist Church, 606 Ridgeway Ave., off Worley Street.
The Worley Street Park Neighborhood Association is the first association started by the Neighborhood Association Revitalization Team, one of six action teams begun in the past year as part of the PedNet Coalition's Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods initiative.
The action team, a small group that meets monthly, is co-chaired by Laboy and Neighborhood Response Coordinator Bill Cantin of the city's Office of Neighborhood Services. It sets out to strengthen neighborhood associations and start new ones. Among the team's goals are running neighborhood association workshops and requiring police attendance at association meetings.
Laboy said that when the Smithton Valley Neighborhood Association teamed up with the police, she saw a drastic difference on the street corners where she once saw drug dealers. The association disbanded several years ago.
"All the community work we did with Smithton Valley, we're reaping the benefits of that today," Laboy said. "It's starting to swing the other way, so it's time to engage again."
Cantin said much of the central city is not in an active neighborhood association, so the action team has made starting one for Worley Street Park a priority. He said strong neighborhood associations are directly related to the healthy lifestyle goal of Unite 4 Healthy Neighborhoods.
"If you have a safe living environment, then people feel safe going out of their house to take a walk," Cantin said.
Laboy doesn't want to lead her neighborhood association this time but rather plans to help others create their own associations through the Neighborhood Association Revitalization Team.
Still, she has some ideas about how the association can improve her neighborhood. Laboy would like to see healthy living activities such as bike-riding lessons, participation in the Neighborhood Watch program, block parties and more communication within the neighborhood.
"People are more tech-savvy, but as far as people skills, they're lost," Laboy said. "People won't even look at their neighbors or say hi. Everybody's shut down. You can't do that and have a healthy community."
Still, Laboy said the direction of the association isn't up to her. "The people have to decide," she said.
Laboy is counting on people to come out to the first neighborhood meeting. She passed out 300 fliers last week to invite her neighbors to the meeting. She said people expressed interest but many seemed unsure about whether they would attend.
Cantin said finding people willing to put in the time to participate and lead is one of the challenges of starting a neighborhood association.
But once people get involved, Laboy said their participation can change the neighborhood.
"When people know they're in a community that cares, they'll think twice before engaging in negative behavior," she said.