by Jamaica Trinnaman
I feel lucky sitting down with Gilberto Rejon Magana and Van Hoover of the Jordan River Community Initiative. Lucky to learn about such a creative, multifaceted nonprofit in my neighborhood, and lucky to hear the stories about kids stepping into a canoe, and stepping out with a greater understanding of their own purpose.
The way Gilberto talks about the Jordan River resonates with me, a girl who explored in the backyard creek from sun up to sun down on long summer days. “I am Mayan Indian,” he says, “and in my culture a river is many things. It is fish, it is recreation, but it’s more than that …it is peace. It is water and water is life.” For this reason, Gilberto, Executive Director and Soccer Coach for Hartland Community 4 Youth and Families, found that caring for the river and using the river to engage local youth came naturally.
Almost eleven years ago Gilberto’s young son offered Gilberto’s services as a soccer coach to a group of troublesome kids at Mountainview Elementary school. When he found out about the offer, Gilberto, knowing his son had acted out of concern, decided he would dig in and do what he could. Little did he know what struggles and successes lie ahead, or that he had just stumbled upon one of the greatest passions of his life.
Each year as Gilberto’s group of kids increased in size, so did its purpose and place in the community. In 2015, Hartland Community 4 Youth and Families became an official non-profit, but it was over a year earlier that the group adopted the stretch along the Jordan River from 1100 South to 1700 South in an effort to branch out and care for their community. As Gilberto explains, Hartland Community 4 Youth and Families offers kids more than soccer, it offers them a place to grow based on what he calls the “The Three Pillars: Responsibility, Respect and Self Discipline.”
It was in late 2013 that Gilberto and fellow Westside Leadership Institute graduate Van Hoover were given a challenge by former Sorenson Unity Center Director Chris Peterson to create a community driven project around the improvement of the Jordan River. Together they created the Jordan River Community Initiative. As a project under the HCFY&F, the new organization would have the undercurrent of youth involvement, but reach broader into the community for support.
Van, who had commuted by bike along the Jordan River from Midvale to Salt Lake City for years, had formed an attachment to the waterway and found himself eager to participate in the project. Van’s love of the wildlife along the river is apparent when he speaks about the creatures he encounters on his rides. “There is this spot where a bald eagle comes every year. Somewhere in late January, BOOM, it’s there, in the same tree.” He smiles thinking about it. “One issue we struggle with is the perception people have of the river. Yes, it’s a post-industrial river, but it’s also an incredible place to spend time.”
Last spring the Jordan River Community Initiative rolled out the first installment of their Art Sign project, an exciting community effort where local artists and kids created paintings together to replace older signs along the river – signs that had for years only served as blank canvases for graffiti, giving the river a neglected feel. Van felt that creating original artwork that rotated year after year would demonstrate that there is ongoing investment in the space.
Thanks to the support of Salt Lake City’s Open Space Lands Program and a grant from the Jordan River Commission, Van and his team were able to put their idea into action. Kids from a variety of programs including Gilberto’s group from Hartland Community, YouthCity, Utah Association for the Deaf, and Splore joined forces with local artists, led by Justin Johnson of Justified Ink. Together they created five gorgeous paintings that celebrate the river and its wildlife. The project will move forward in spring of 2017 with a second round of paintings.
Gilberto, a long time west side resident, admits the Jordan River has a colorful past, and not every stretch of the river has a reputation for being clean or even safe. He addresses this issue at times by engaging his kids in conversation about community and accountability, taking them to a spot piled with trash and belongings and asking “How do you think that got here?”
Van speaks to a central purpose of their organization when he says that it is important to foster “a community value of stewardship, because the river doesn’t take care of itself.” A true statement for a river that may have at one point flowed free and pure, but has long since been altered and used to serve the city.
I love what Sarah Williams, a photo contributor for the Jordan River Community Initiative Facebook page, says about the river. “The river seems to reflect all the different colors of our city. In parts urban, or industrial, while in others meandering and serene. It is a complicated beauty.”
For updates on projects, activities and cleanups, check out the Jordan River Community Initiative group on Facebook.