This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
Rain or shine, you’ll see West Valley City resident David Nuckolls getting his hands dirty on a Saturday morning during a My Hometown day of service. It’s Nuckolls way of giving back to the community after they relieved him of a constant headache: a tree too big to wrap your arms around.
“The tree roots were growing, and it was tearing up my house,” said Nuckolls, resting his hands on a shovel during a light drizzle. “It meant getting that tree out versus fighting that tree for the rest of my life.”
In order to preserve his home, Nuckolls knew the tree had to go, but he didn’t have the roughly $20,000 it would take to tackle the tree and repair his driveway.
That’s when My Hometown stepped in to assist Nuckolls with the removal so the tree would no longer uproot his life or empty his pockets. Nuckolls watched volunteers in neon vests haul the tree off his property, along with his worry. It was part of a My Hometown day of service, where community members dedicate a Saturday to improving a neighbor’s home.
Volunteers helped save Nuckolls a big chunk of change on labor, allowing him to fix the looming problem for less than $4,000.
“I’m so grateful that these volunteers just showed up,” Nuckolls said. “I got the project done for nickels on the dollar.”
So now, whenever there’s a day of service in the community, “I’m here,” said Nuckolls, “paying it forward.”
Envisioning My Hometown
Nuckolls is just one of the many lives My Hometown has impacted since it began. It started two years ago as a pilot program when a group of West Valley residents approached the city council. His tree removal project exemplifies what My Hometown seeks to do--unite West Valley’s diverse community through interpersonal relationships and maintain the long-term livability of homes.
“We want to have neighborhoods that feel together and neighbors that know each other and support each other in the ways that they need to be supported,” said Nicole Cottle, the assistant city manager for West Valley City.
The community put My Hometown into motion by combining city, resident, religious and corporate resources.
To focus on individual visions, My Hometown established block captains, where residents living in a pilot neighborhood build relationships with the people in their area to continue cultivating a vibrant, welcoming community.
Among those block captains is Bonnie Shaw, an energetic 71-year-old woman who walked around various service projects on that rainy Saturday with her mighty clipboard and My Hometown nametag.
“This makes me superwoman,” Shaw said, lifting up her lanyard with a wide smile. “When I put this on, I can talk to and help anybody.”
As a block captain, Shaw oversees 100 homes in West Valley’s Stansbury neighborhood where she’s lived since 1976.
“People are beginning to see the beautification of the area, and that’s all it takes,” Shaw said. “Just do your corner of the universe. Your neighbor will see, and it’s contagious.”
She learned about My Hometown through The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where Shaw and her husband serve a full-time service mission. The LDS community in West Valley has been heavily involved with My Hometown from the get go, although the Church does not have control over the program--residents do.
My Hometown wanted to expand its efforts beyond service projects, but their planning was soon met with an obstacle: the COVID-19 pandemic.
Due to public safety concerns, days of service were limited to outdoor projects, community-gathering events were suspended and community building became tricky.
However, to Cottle, the pandemic provided a unique opportunity for the city to hear from community members, especially during a vulnerable time when case counts were high.
“The pandemic turned out to be a great educator for us,” said Cottle, “we learned what our residents truly wanted and needed.”
For example, Cottle says the city discovered that kids in the pilot areas wanted to learn Spanish so they could speak with their grandparents. Other kids wanted to pick up the piano.
The city put out the call for volunteers, and community members quickly stepped up to the plate to teach piano and Spanish lessons once a week at a local LDS chapel.
If it weren’t for the pandemic, “the city would not have known that there were 35 kids in that neighborhood who wanted to learn piano,” said Cottle.
Putting neighbors first
West Valley City Council Member Don Christensen has been a supporter of My Hometown ever since a group of locals pitched the concept at a council meeting. He describes the initiative as “a model to build up our own neighborhoods,” and neighbors helping neighbors “is the biggest benefit of all.”
Shaw couldn’t agree more.
“My Hometown is the most amazing thing that has ever happened,” said Shaw. It gave her the chance to do something she’s always wanted to do: know every single neighbor in her 100-person area on a first-name basis.
Being a block captain gave Shaw the confidence to speak with her neighbors, including Elsie Herrera, who has since become a dear friend.
“I think the most important thing we’re doing as block captains is developing relationships,” said Shaw.
As with Shaw, the project inspired the city’s teens to foster friendships and bolster community interactions. This prompted them to kickstart the My Hometown Youth Council.
“We’re trying to bring the youth together and talk about the vision for our community,” My Hometown Youth Council member Daniel Rupp, 17, said, “because we’re going to be the ones leading in 10 years.”
The youth council has already made strides to bring West Valley’s diverse backgrounds together.
“We’ve added a partnership with the Muslim mosque and their youth leaders to create a small basketball program,” said Rupp. A soccer league is in the works, too.
Additionally, the youth council is hosting a Thanksgiving dinner, which they are calling “Friendsgiving,” next month to bring all cultural and ethnic groups in the area together for a meal.
“Everyone can bring food from their cultures and share with each other at the Community Resource Center,” Rupp said.
Jeff and Anna Boese, who are also block captains, moved to West Valley City about a year and a half ago. They bought a house in a quaint cul-de-sac and have been slowly upgrading their new home. My Hometown has played an integral role in making Utah feel like a sanctuary for the Boeses, whether it be helping landscape their backyard or meeting the eight other families in their area.
“My Hometown really helped our neighborhood get to know each other well, especially in our cul-de-sac,” said Jeff Boese. “It’s a really cool way to look out for each other’s backs and for me to be able to just get to know my neighbors.”
Not only did the comradery built into My Hometown inspire the Boese’s to build a front porch so they could create a space to share with their neighbors, Jeff says the program also makes them feel noticed by city leaders.
“It really lets the city keep a heartbeat on what’s going on in the community and what we need on a very individual level,” said Jeff. “I think what it does is lets our politicians here in the city know what the community needs.”
A community ripple effect
At the beginning of the pilot project in 2019, My Hometown honed its efforts in one West Valley area that covered 1,000 homes, had an elementary school nearby, along with 30 churches in the vicinity.
Since then, its footprint has expanded to four other West Valley neighborhoods.
The initiative has been so successful, Utahns from other cities have attended a day of service, or reached out to West Valley City to take notes on what they’ve built.
“My Hometown is now expanding to Ogden, Salt Lake, a larger area in Granger, other West Valley cities and Provo,” said Shaw.
West Valley City says surrounding cities frequently email them, asking for advice on how to start something similar.
However, you won’t hear the city take credit for the initiative.
“We brought the spark, and that’s it,” said Nicole Cottle, the assistant manager of West Valley City. “The residents have been the fuel all along.”