EAST PEORIA — Last year, Rene Rosiak of East Peoria and Zak Edmonds of West Peoria were students in the East Peoria Leadership School, an annual twelve-week Chamber of Commerce-sponsored class in which participants work to promote positive changes in their workplaces and their community. During the course, Rosiak and Edmonds were involved in various projects aimed at helping to renovate East Peoria’s low-income Richland neighborhood. After completing the leadership school, Rosiak and Edmonds remained interested in helping improve and beautify the neighborhood and, with Tazewell Area Community Project director Penny Powell of Trivoli, began the Raising Up Richland initiative. Raising Up Richland is a program designed to foster renovation efforts on neighborhood housing, beautification of public areas, and youth programs.

“We worked with Penny and several residents of the neighborhood to come up with ideas on how to help the neighborhood and the children living there,” said Edmonds. “Rene developed the Stuff the Stockings program for last Christmas, and got several local businesses to donate presents or funds to buy presents for Richland children. The kids loved it, and the event kicked-started the Raising Up Richland initiative.”

In the year that has passed since Rosiak and Edmonds completed the East Peoria Leadership School, they have co-founded the Friends of Richland’s Youth (FORY) organization, which has raised money to fund a youth summer camp program.

“In 2015, we lost all money for Community Area Projects programs throughout the state,” said Powell. “We were able to hire tutors through a grant we wrote with Caterpillar, but there was no funding for after-school activities or youth recreation programs. But FORY has stepped in, and Tazewood Community Services has helped with funding to make sure children have access to the same activities they had before, and even added some new activities to the summer camp they offer.”

The positive influence of Richland youth programs is reflected in the lack of gang activity in the neighborhood and in youth participation in beautification projects. Completed projects since FORY was formed include the repainting of the Richland Farms Community Center and several housing refurbishments.

“They’ve painted tires and planted flowers at people’s houses,” Powell said. “We’ve cleaned yards and put roofs on houses. The kids see it as a way to give back to the Raising Up Richland initiative that provides their after-school and recreation programs.”

Of the 35 Richland children who attended this year’s FORY-sponsored summer camp, several had families who could not afford bathing suits. FORY’s members made arrangements for donors to buy each child a towel, a bag, and a swim suit.

“We worked with the South Side Office of Concern, which oversees Local Initiative Support Coalition funds that come to Richland, and Neighborhood House to bring summer lunches to children who were not involved in our summer camp,” said Powell. “At first, only a couple of kids came, but more came as the summer went on. We also worked with the United Methodist Church to make sure the kids both in our summer camps and in our free lunch program had access to a summer snack pack, so they could have food for the entire weekend. Food is an issue for the some of the families in Richland.”

Richland’s ongoing needs include continued community support, improvements to neighborhood housing, and a steady diet of youth programs. FORY’s members plan to address those needs through regular fundraising events such as a Fall Vendor Craft Fair in November, a Haunted Trail in October, and the inaugural Richland Round-Up Sept. 30.

“The Richland Round-Up is a benefit bar crawl through East Peoria,” said Edmonds. “Obviously, this is an adults-only event, but it’s an easy fund-raiser. We’ve reached out to bars and restaurants ahead of time to find out if they would be willing to make a straight donation or give a percentage of the sales if we brought in 40 to 60 people in for an hour. We have buses that have been donated, so we don’t have to worry about anyone driving.”

“We’ll go from place to place, and we’ll have donation jars set up at each stop for people who aren’t on the bus,” said Rosiak. “Usually, when a group of people are wearing the same t-shirt, it’s going to generate curiosity and people are going to ask what’s going on. When we tell them it’s a benefit raising money for Richland youth programs, they might throw some money in the jar.”

To reserve a seat on the bus for the Richland Round-Up for $20, call 309-232-8817 or email FORY@raisinguprichland.org. Reservations come with a commemorative t-shirt. The bus leaves at 2 p.m. from the Richland Farms Community Center FORY will host an after-crawl cookout at Bottoms Up bar and grill.