Citizen advocates

Bernard Bredbenner, Irish Griffin and Lonnie Wilcox may not be familiar to many people, though each of them made news in the past year.

They are prime examples of how an everyday person can make a difference as a citizen advocate.

At age 96, Bredbenner established a $100,000 endowment fund for area youth programs, using his gas lease revenue. He established the fund in memory of his wife, Eva, who died in 2011, through the First Community Foundation Partnership of Pennsylvania.

Griffin, 58, staged summer protests after Memorial Pool remained closed for a second year in a row. She envisioned it could become crystal blue and full of life once again. Her voice contributed to a surprising twist when city leaders reversed course on their decision to close it, instead choosing to keep it open.

Wilcox, 40, has been a leader in the construction and operation of Lifland Skatepark along West Fourth Street, continuing efforts this year to sustain it by raising funds toward liability insurance and planning for its growth with a new design featuring benches, obstacles and rails.

“It takes a person with passion to ensure youth get programs they need, that the pool will be there for the kids or a skatepark will be there to give the kids an outlet,” said Dawn M. Linn, vice president of planned philanthropy at the foundation.

“Citizen advocates can be one of the strongest forces for change within our community, especially when they rally an underserved population and give a voice to some part of the city that has never before felt empowered,” City Councilwoman Liz Miele said.

“We have many smaller communities that, it seems to me, feel as though their concerns aren’t and won’t be addressed by government. When someone steps up and unites one of those communities, it can have a powerful effect not just within that community, but within government,” Miele said.

Linn said there are people who enjoy giving back, but that advocacy seems to be done in stages in life. More often than not, young people contribute their labor and time, and more mature people donate financial resources.

“I know it’s Bernard’s dream for other people who become fortunate through gas leases to take care of their own communities and themselves,” Linn said. “It’s his dream that if others would share their passions and find a way to give of their time, their talents or financial resources, that our communities would be much stronger,” she said.

Bredbenner considered his wife to be the brains, a life partner who could transform any property into a home, and for that reason he established the fund in Eva’s name, Linn said.

Griffin, meanwhile, wouldn’t settle for the permanent closure of her community pool.

Staging protests, holding up posters in the summer heat after getting off work and rousing the community on radio and at City Council, Griffin has promised Mayor Gabriel J. Campana that those in her neighborhood would hold sandwich sales, car washes and run hot dog and hamburger cookoffs at the park to pay for costs associated with repairing the pool.

“We’ll do whatever it takes,” she said.

Council President Bill Hall has suggested the citizens raise $50,000 toward the pool repair, and Griffin took the lead as a voice for promise that it shall be done.

“Building communities is about giving people something they can buy-in on and get direct results from,” Hall said. He admired Griffin for using her democratic right to take a stand and let her voice be heard.

“That’s what democracy is about,” Hall said.

Griffin’s voice resonated because she was able to pull people together for a cause, said Alison D. Hirsch, a friend who sought a council seat this year. “Her emphasis on how the closing of the pool hurt kids and the community was felt far and wide,” she said.

“I think what Lonnie did was truly fantastic,” said Sally Butterfield, a city resident who gave $40,000 toward the skatepark in honor of her late mother, Fay Lifland, for whom the park is named.

While a Rock ‘n’ Roll fundraiser in September helped to defray the annual cost of liability insurance, Butterfield spoke about Wilcox’s efforts to keep the energy alive and promote the park as a place for both those with skills to excel and those who want to practice to get better day by day.

“He started with nothing except an idea,” she said. “He had absolutely no knowledge of how it was going to become a reality, only that he wanted a skatepark and he found volunteers who contributed labor and materials and he got people to donate goods, truckloads of fill and contracting companies and suppliers to be involved,” she said.

“He really did a masterful job in getting large numbers of people to contribute whatever they could. Lonnie organized bands of nonpolitical young skateboarders to attend council meetings and tell the leaders how they wanted their own skatepark,” Butterfield said.

“If Lonnie didn’t start it rolling, it never would have happened,” she said.

“I think that everyone would like to see input and involvement by all citizens of the city in dictating the path the city takes, but it is very hard to successfully solicit that involvement, and even harder to make all parties feel as though their input matters,” Miele said.

It can take tons of hard work to effect meaningful change and empower new groups but that’s not always the case, according to Miele.

“Sometimes a small victory can be won very quickly,” she said. “We can’t lose hope, or faith in the commitment of others, when the going seems slow. We just need to redouble our efforts or reexamine our path.

“The best message I can offer to those who feel as though their voices aren’t being heard is: A voice is the beginning, but action is the most important part of demonstrating your commitment to your ideals. Follow through on your words with your actions, work to build a better community, and you will be rewarded with progress, in the long run.”