Humans of ACC: Sandra Saulsberry
Transformation Through the Eyes of a Longtime Summit Lake Resident
By: Abigail Bashor
Sandra Saulsberry has seen transformation occur at Summit Lake ever since she first moved there three decades ago. Having relocated with her family from Michigan in 1982, Saulsberry can recount the highs and lows the area has experienced with exceptional insight.
“When I first moved here there was a mixture of older and middle-aged people who were primarily homeowners,” she says. “We were the fourth or fifth black family on the block, and for a long time the activities we did were as a family.” Going down to view the lake, spending time on the dock, or watching a baseball game every once in a while were some of the outings Saulsberry recounts from her family’s early years in the neighborhood. As her children grew older, they often participated in open gyms and other youth activities on their own. It was in the late 1980s to mid-1990s, though, that a palpable change began to take place in the area. “You started seeing a downhill slide,” recalls Saulsberry. These shifts came through examples such as residents and visitors not maintaining properties, trash left on the ground, and animals not being cleaned up after.
“The mentality started changing. It was a different mindset from when we were first here, when people took more pride in the community.”
For a stretch of about the next 20 years, Saulsberry says little had been done to reverse this deterioration. It wasn’t until word of the Akron Civic Commons project made its way through community engagement meetings that a spark was ignited. “Now that this project has come through,” Saulsberry explains, “it’s more like, ‘we want to include you in a change that we’re trying to promote within the community.’ It’s not all about what [they] can simply give you. You see the participation that I would have joined in if we had these opportunities years ago.”
Still, it took some time for Saulsberry and many residents to become comfortable with the change that was taking place. “When they first came, I was suspicious,” she admits. “Why all of a sudden are you interested in this place that has been here this whole time?” Her questions were soon answered and her mind changed, however, upon seeing enthusiasm matched with action. “When I saw the benefit of the changes, I think the transformations brought out a lot of positivity in people. What I’ve seen at Summit Lake is that you have people who are trying to come together and make it an encouraging place; a place where people will want to visit and participate in activities.”
Many of those activities Saulsberry participates in, herself. At both the Summit Lake Community Center and the Reach Opportunity Center, Saulsberry has been involved in everything from computer classes to canning and cooking demos. She has a garden in the neighborhood, and is always helping to pass out flyers and get the word out about upcoming events, such as volunteering at the local farmers’ market. “I try to do my part to help,” she says. “I’m a pretty simple person and keep to myself, but I’m more involved in the community now that different organizations are bringing things to the area and inviting everybody to be a participant. It’s giving a hand up instead of a hand-out.”
This type of wholehearted participation at Summit Lake is quite remarkable for Saulsberry, who only a few short years ago wanted little to do with the space. In 2014, Saulsberry’s youngest son committed suicide at Summit Lake, leaving her and her family largely disassociated from the area. “At that point I felt that I didn’t want to go down there or have anything to do with that lake,” she admits. “When the [Civic Commons] project came down and I sat in on the meetings, my attitude was that I didn’t want to be bothered; it was a reminder to me.” But as work began on the lake and different programs were implemented, Saulsberry says she actually started to visit and sit on the benches and swings. “Now I think of it as a nice place. It’s no longer a place where I think, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go there.’ The changes have transformed how I thought about losing my son and the lake as a whole. It’s a place of joy now, not a place of sadness. I always thought of him in a positive way, and it’s not a painful place for me anymore.”
Saulsberry says her hope and vision for the continued work of the Civic Commons project at Summit Lake is “for it to become a place where families reconnect and become stronger.” She says that the project has allowed the lake to become a place for residents new and old, familiar and unfamiliar, to simply spend time together. “I see the vision of the Civic Commons coming together,” she explains. “It brings in people from different parts of the city, even just for a temporary conversation. There are people who spend time there in the evenings and enjoy a cup of coffee and talk about the change taking place down there. I enjoy it. I would never have dreamed that I would want to come down to Summit Lake again, but this has changed my perspective.”
//Abigail Bashor is a University of Akron student, Akron Civic Commons Storyteller, and head of UA's Her Campus.//