Residents in northeast Brainerd were treated to a pair of street shindigs Monday and Wednesday in an effort by area partners to heal local communities from the inside out.
Running from about 5 p.m. (when the first volunteers hit the pavement to knock on doors) to roughly 8:30 p.m. when they packed up, organizers hailing from Crow Wing County, Bridges of Hope, the Brainerd Police Department and Cub Foods, among others, hosted pop-up campfires for people to mingle, connect and band together.
The goal of Bridge of Hope’s Self-Healing Communities Project -- of which, the pop-up community campfires represent an important initial step -- is to reduce and reverse the negative effects of childhood trauma by strengthening communities and giving them the tools to address underlying problems that emerge through crime, drug use, chronic poverty and family dysfunction.
“Some of the feedback we’ve got is, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t start with all the doom and gloom,’” said program director Tom Gonzalez. “‘We shouldn’t start with trauma, maybe we should just do fun things so the community gets out, mingles and gets to know each other.’”
As northeast Brainerd represents some of the most vulnerable streets of Crow Wing County in these respects, Gonzalez said, it’s been a point of emphasis and looks to be the subject of a comprehensive Northeast Council one day to combat these social ills. Starting last August, he noted Monday and Wednesday’s events represent a culmination of 12 months of work at the direction of Crow Wing County authorities.
Bridges of Hope reached out to residents across northeast Brainerd, Gonzalez said, where it quickly became apparent connecting with the different needs and concerns of homeowners and renters (a roughly 50/50 split) presented a challenge, as people from different living situations generally had very different conceptions of community, problems and their solutions.
One idea that had overwhelming approval? Campfires, Gonzalez said, which were supported by about 7 out of 10.
“People wanted to have these campfires, slow down, have a conversation,” he said. “We thought that’s what we should do. We show up, block off a street, set up a fifth-wheel trailer, cook hotdogs and light a fire, talk with people.”
Among those present was Community Service Officer Zach Gowens and mascot McGruff the Crime Dog -- representing the face of local law enforcement, said Brainerd Deputy Police Chief Mike Bestul Thursday, Aug. 22.
Bestul described the Brainerd Police Department’s involvement as an effort to promote positive interactions and healthy relationships between officers and members of the community, one that may differ from popular conceptions of law enforcement as disciplinary intimidators. It’s part of a push for community policing, or as Bestul puts it, addressing issues of communication and trauma before they manifest into crime.
“What we’re trying to do is go out into the community and engage conversations … to talk about what Brainerd is and the resources available,” Bestul said. “We want to go out and meet with families, kids to show them us in a different light, that we’re not just arresting people.”
While turnout, about 40-50 people, was a little lower than initially hoped, Bestul noted, initial reports on the event are encouraging to that end.
A third bonfire Thursday, Aug. 22, evening was canceled on account of burnout and exhaustion for Bridges of Hope employees, Gonzalez noted. While neither Bestul nor Gonzalez could pinpoint concrete plans for more pop-up campfires just yet, the success of these events so far means it’s likely to pop up again on the calendar.
“We thought it went very well,” Gonzalez said. “We hope to do more in the future.”
For the Self-Healing Community Project, Gonzalez encouraged Brainerd residents to sign up for the Northeast Brainerd Council, which is intended to foster better lives free of drug use, crime and childhood trauma. The first meeting over dinner is slated for 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Sept. 15.