Members of the Milwood Neighborhood Watch meet in person to get moving again

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Milwood series. If you have a story about the neighborhood please let us know here.
Residents of Kalamazoo’s Milwood Neighborhood are ready to stride into the fair-weather months and shake off the malaise of COVID-19 — with new leadership and a common cause.
The Milwood Neighborhood Watch Association, which has served as the key advocate organization for the community that includes a large cross-section of residential and commercial properties in the City of Kalamazoo’s southeast corner, held its first in-person community meeting since efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus halted large public gatherings in early 2020.
“We don’t want to be known as a Neighborhood Watch that measures grass, and reports you to the city,“ says Chad Hoke, the new president of the Milwood Neighborhood Watch Association. “We’re here to build the community. To unite the people and just make Milwood awesome.”
A resident of Miles Avenue for about 24 years, he says the neighborhood is already awesome, “But we want to hit over the top.”
Hoke, 46, was named to fill the volunteer leadership post of the association following a nearly six-month hiatus associated with the untimely illness and subsequent death in November of previous association president John Hilliard. Hilliard had served as president of the 28-year-old association since 2019.
Milwood residents gathered on Tuesday evening (March 22, 2022) to greet new members of the Milwood Neighborhood Watch Association.Hoke introduced the organization’s board of directors to about 40 community members and announced that it is looking to fill in several vacant seats. It presently has six members but hopes to grow that to 11. The board includes neighborhood residents Hannah Bolinger, Cindy Hill, Jane Lucas, Virgil Sanford, and Amanda Hoke, who is Chad’s wife of 16 years.
“I think we’re really trying to do the community aspect -- that we want people to come together as a community,” she says. “We want them to look out for one another, take care of each other on their streets. If someone needs their lawn mowed or their sidewalk shoveled, we need to go out and help our neighbors. And just be a part of assisting those around us and monitoring the things that happen around us.”
The Hokes, who are the parents of three children, Madalyn, 16, Kaitlyn, 15, and Nathan, 13, say they want to do more planning to bring children and young people into the association’s efforts. Chad Hoke says the association plans to conduct its annual Night Out event in August as well as its annual neighborhood-wide garage sales on June 10 and 11. Programming for youth is still being developed.
The association will host a “Kickoff to Summer” event, from 5 to 7 p.m. on June 11 in the parking lot of the Milwood United Methodist Church, at 3919 Portage St. The opportunity for neighborhoods to gather will feature food vendor trucks.
“Next year, once we can get to some security behind the association, then we’ll start to branch off into other things; things that John used to do in the past, “ Amanda Hoke says, referring to the work of previous president Hilliard.
Before his death at age 80, Hilliard worked to expand programming for the organization, including events at Milham Park and monthly meetings with civic officials to address community issues. He also toured the neighborhood (which is the largest in the City of Kalamazoo in terms of area) nearly every day to check for problems with crime, litter, noise, and other concerns. He was regularly connected with police and acted as a resource for residents to report suspected criminal activity to the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety.
Landscape designer Rachel Hughes-Nilsson, of O’Boyle, Cowell, Blalock & Associates, explained plans to improve the Milham Park playground to Millwood residents on Tuesday, March 22, 2022.Hoke has said the association may consider recruiting residents in various areas of the neighborhood to patrol it and help report problems.
“Any organization that exists to help people connect with each other, support one another, or be there for one another – that’s what makes a community work,” says Pastor Caleb Williams, of the Milwood United Methodist Church. He says the church shares the association’s mission of trying to help people become better neighbors.
Williams spoke briefly during Tuesday evening’s gathering. Others who spoke were KDPS Community Policing Sgt. Andrew Werkema, Kalamazoo City Commissioner Don Cooney, and Senior Assistant Prosecuting Attorney for Kalamazoo County Kenneth Barnard.
Werkema invited people to help officers keep the neighborhood safe by reporting problems and working with Community Policing Officer Alex Marshall, who was unable to attend Tuesday’s meeting. Barnard asked for support as he looks to become a judge in Kalamazoo County’s 9th Circuit Court. And Cooney, a longtime Milwood resident, said the city is working on summer programming for young people to help make it a “Super Summer” for them. And he said it is working hard to find ways to stop violence.
Amanda Hoke says, “We want to support the youth. We want to give them places to go that make them feel safe and build them up as community partners here in our neighborhood.”
For the association’s first in-person community meeting since early 2020, Kalamazoo Mayor David Anderson, left, joined Chad Hoke, president of the Milwood Neighborhood Watch Association, on Tuesday evening (March 22, 2022) at the Milwood United MethoIn regard to opportunities for children, landscape designer Rachel Hughes-Nilsson, an associate with O’Boyle, Cowell, Blalock & Associates, says the City of Kalamazoo is expected to begin to replace playground equipment at Milham Park this fall and merge what has been two adjacent play areas into one.
“The existing playground in Milham Park is older (more than 15 years old) and there are some existing pieces that need to be replaced,” Hughes-Nilsson. “So we are looking to replace that equipment and kind of altering the playground experience itself.”
She says the existing surfaces are not very accessible for people with physical challenges. Sand and a lack of sidewalks in the area are a hindrance to people in wheelchairs, for instance.
She also says, “We want to make sure the equipment we’re selecting is also more accessible to kids of all physical challenges. We’re looking at putting a quiet space in there so kids who maybe have sensory issues have a place to take a step back and kind of recenter themselves before going back onto the playground.”
Among other things, she says the area will include communication boards, which are panels with symbols that youngsters who are nonverbal or who speak a different language can use to help communicate with other youngsters.
Mayor David Anderson praised the work that had been done by Hilliard and Milwood Neighborhood Watch Founder Ken Horton, who also died in November. Of the work that Hoke and the others are undertaking, Anderson says, “It’s going to be hard work. People have busy lives.”
But he says, “Where we live is so important and it really makes a difference to bring people together to advocate for their neighborhood and the people who live there.”
Doing that also has some political power, he says. People can bring a collective voice to the city that reflects what the neighborhood wants and needs and “that is so much stronger than just individuals doing it alone,” he says.
Asked what he would tell area residents who want to help improve the neighborhood, Chad Hoke says, “Volunteer to do anything. Look out for your neighbors. Pay attention to what’s going on in your surroundings. Be nice.”

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.