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Growing Community Gardens and Community Leaders 

A shy, insecure boy from the projects, Billy Heath never saw himself with potential as a leader. But through CBA’s resident empowerment program, he is changing the landscape of the city –and his life.

Five years ago, Billy Heath heard about an annual Acre Cleanup Day being hosted by CBA. He didn’t know anything about the organization, but he had been hoping to find a way to serve his community and decided to volunteer. It was a turning point in his life.

Since that day, Billy has emerged as one of CBA’s most ardent supporters, the first to step up to volunteer for any activity, from beautification project to monthly potluck dinners. Two years ago, he surprised himself by being elected to the CBA Board of Directors, where he has found a voice in important development and improvement initiatives to improve the neighborhood, the city, and the Merrimack Valley.

A second family

“CBA is a second family to me,” says Billy, 27, who was born and raised in Lowell and has lived most of his life in the North Common Village in the Acre. “Even if I don’t know their language or their culture, these people are just like me, wanting to better the community and make a better place for families and neighborhoods.”

Last year, CBA sent Billy and several others to NeighborWorks® America’s Community Leadership Institute in Orlando, part of CBA’s commitment to its mission of resident empowerment, providing opportunities and training for residents like Billy to develop and strengthen skills in leadership and community organizing. The Institute expanded Billy’s horizons in more ways than one: It was his first time on a plane and first time traveling outside of New England – and he flew right into Hurricane Sandy.

He’s put his new skills to the test with his new role at garden coordinator for the community garden at Wilfred Levasseur Park. After 18 months and the contribution of more than 200 community members, the park opened in June 2013, reclaiming a vacant city-owned lot and giving it a new purpose for community use and enjoyment. The lot is located off of Salem Street, near Cote’s Market and the new University of Massachusetts Lowell student center under construction.

Nurturing vegetables - and community

Replacing the weeds, trash, and hypodermic needles are a pergola, art displays, and benches, surrounded by 15 raised planting beds filled with vegetables and tended by community gardeners. All of the work on the project, from clearing the lot to building the pergola and installing the garden beds and brickwork, was done by community members, under the direction of Dave Ouellette, president of ACTION (Acre Coalition to Improve Our Neighborhood) and the driving force behind the project.

In Billy’s new role, he oversees the use of the location by the individuals and families who have taken responsibility for tending the garden beds. He completed the Garden Coordinator Institute, led by Mill City Grows, a nonprofit organization that improves the community through increased access to land, locally-grown food and education.

No one is more surprised than Billy at his transformation from the introvert who wouldn’t speak up or voice his opinion. Today, Billy takes a leadership role in organizing and running events throughout the city.

“People like Billy are the backbone of successful neighborhoods – individuals who give of their time and talent to make change happen,” says CBA Deputy Director Suzanne Frechette. “Billy is a firm believer that every person has the ability to create change in the world, and he inspires others to become involved in the community and to understand the power and opportunity they have to make a difference.”