PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — A plan to reduce violence in Peoria, starting with gratitude. Build Peoria is funding the POTENT Gratitude Park, a project with the goal to reduce violence in the community through some greenspace and a little gratitude.

The City of Peoria is at a record-high number of homicides this year, currently at 34 at the time this article is published. Therefore, WMBD is finding community solutions to curb the violence in our city, and sharing these stories through the “Together We Rise” series.

WMBD is highlighting the POTENT Gratitude Park project for its vision of bringing the community together.

“I believe that the world is full of wonderful things to be grateful for,” said Bob Woolsey, Chief Inspiration Officer at Jones Bros. Jewelers.

Woolsey is part of the team that pitched POTENT Gratitude Park to nonprofit Build Peoria, and the project was selected as Build Peoria’s 2021-2022 community project.

Across from the Proctor Recreation Center in Peoria’s South End sits Sovereign Grace Baptist Church. The pastor, Alvin Riley, had an idea for a park to replace the three vacant homes next door. From there, the project was born.

“It was his idea, we ran with it, we brought down the mayor, city council,” Woolsey said. “What can happen if a group of people get together and knock down three houses and turn it into something special.”

The theme of the park, “POTENT Gratitude,” is based on a blog of the same name, also started by Woolsey. POTENT stands for people, opportunities, things, experiences, nature, and things. Woolsey says these are the six things to be grateful for.

“That’s why I want Peoria to be the first community that shares the common language about gratitude as where we start,” he said.

Pastor Riley said he hopes to start programs for Peoria youth, giving them extra-curricular activities to keep them off the streets and connect them with community resources.

“Our goal is to be able to work with the kids in the community, give the kids a safe place to come to, try to help reduce some of the violence, partnering up with Proctor,” Riley said.

He said in order to curb the violence in our city, an open dialogue has to begin.

“Building a relationship, it allows us– it gives us an opportunity to, uh, open up the park, work with some children, listen to some of their stories,” he said. “And it gives us an opportunity then to delegate to other parts in the city that I think can help our children and the community.”

He said he wants the blame game to stop. He said as a community, we have to “look within ourselves.”

“Some of the troubles we’re having because we never dealt with the gang issues in the city. We never built relationships or rapport with the gang members, and the generation is getting wiser and wickeder,” Riley said. “We have to be willing to sit down and talk with people. We have to be able to get out and hit it head on.”

The new park, set to be completed in Spring 2022 can serve as a platform.

“And that’s where we’ll be able to start that dialogue,” Riley said. “Give them an opportunity to have fun, yet at the same time, see what opportunities we can open up for them. And see some of their struggles.”

Phase 1 of the project includes demolishing the three vacant homes next to Sovereign Grace, and creating greenspace for the community.

Nick Yates with Build Peoria said once the city is able to obtain ownership of all three homes, then the demolition can begin and it should be a quick process after the homes are cleared.

Phase 2 includes adding an addition to the neighboring church that will serve as a meeting center. This is where Pastor Riley can implement the extra-curricular activities he hopes to bring to the South End.

Riley said the park will be primarily the responsibility of the church. He also said volunteers from the Peoria Park District and ELITE Youth Outreach will help supervise the park and keep it safe. Woolsey said the area will have lighting, fencing, and cameras, also to ensure safety.

Woolsey hopes the spirit of gratitude will be a defense mechanism against further violence. He said the project is underway because a team of people advocated for an idea.

“When you start with a vision and some great ideas, and the community starts to surround it, and then you get some funding and you get some support, anything can happen,” Woolsey said. “And so, to me, that’s exactly what the focus of Potent gratitude is all about. You start with something positive and great things radiate from it.”

The community is encouraged to add posts to the POTENT Gratitude website, and any further donations to the park can be made directly to Build Peoria.