HUNTINGTON - Brittani Wilt said her initial idea to build a blessings box has expanded into creating a full-fledged park in Huntington's West End neighborhood, complete with benches, a swing and an apple tree.

Wilt and her colleagues from the Children's Home Society of Huntington have worked several days to transform the formerly unused lot into a space that everyone may enjoy.

While working on the lot, located around the corner from The Wild Ramp on West 5th Avenue, people have stopped littering there and neighbors have taken notice of improvements.

Wilt, a social work intern, said they were originally looking for a lot to place a blessings box, but plans evolved when they got in touch with the Cabell County Master Gardeners and others who helped in its design. The lot is owned by the Grace Baptist Church, which agreed to see it transformed.

"They drew up a blueprint, and it just became a whole big project," Wilt said.

Their work is being funded by the nonprofit organization Cities of Service in a program called "Love Your Block." The organization's mission is to improve relationships between citizens and city governments through community engagement.

It chose Huntington as one of 10 cities to participate in the two-year Love Your Block program, giving $25,000 to allocate as mini-grant projects in the West End neighborhood.

In its first year, the city's selection committee awarded seven mini-grants for projects including four public space enhancements, two exterior home repairs and the newly created park.

Wilt said she was researching information for the blessings box when she saw the Love Your Block program application on the city's website. They then applied for it and won.

Building the park fits within goals of the Children's Home Society, said Diana Lucas, site supervisor.

"We just want to be embedded in our community so we can try to reach children and their families," she said. "Our mission is to promote the well-being of the family."

Among other grant recipient was the West Huntington Organization, which repainted signs, planted trees and rebuilt a falling sidewalk. The Old Central City Association used a mini-grant to plant flowers around the 14th Street West Gazebo. The Wild Ramp used the grant to install a planter to benefit bees and other pollinators. Two people were also given grants to make minor exterior home repairs.

Through the Love Your Block program, the city was designated two AmeriCorps VISTA workers to oversee and help guide the projects. One of those VISTA workers was Nathan Thomas, who said he enjoyed seeing all the projects come together.

"Looking at the Children's Home lot and what that looked like even in January, it was an uncared for land. Now it's becoming a really beautiful community sanctuary," he said. "It shows what a project with a strong vision can be just through simple mini-grants."

Bre Shell, city planner, said she is looking forward to more improvement projects around West Huntington in the program's second year. In the meantime, the city is seeking two more AmeriCorps VISTA members to help oversee projects next year.

The one-year commitment comes with a living stipend and additional money after completion of service. Relocation assistance is also provided if necessary. To apply, visit http://my.americorps.gov and search for "Love Your Block." The program is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.

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