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Honoring Neighborhood Changemakers

Champions at Home


Great neighborhoods. We all want them. On the surface are stats touting good schools, low crime rates, well-kept homes and walkable streets. But, at the heart of these thriving pockets of humanity are good neighbors partnering with city leaders to make those claims possible. They are givers, mobilizers, innovators and problem solvers who want nothing more than to plant seeds of positive change. In Richardson, one neighborhood association is on a mission to do just that.

In February, the Richardson Heights Neighborhood Association (RHNA) presented the first Citizen Neighbor of the Year award to Barry Hand, Richardson resident and architect, and the first Neighborhood Ally of the Year award to Bill DiGaetano, owner and COO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema DFW.

The Seed of an Idea

A few years ago, RHNA board members identified a need to recognize neighborhood difference-makers.

“I’m kind of calling it a ‘thank you’ versus an award,” explained Jen Jernigan, RHNA board president and Richardson native. “We started with recognizing people who have given back to our neighborhood and community, an individual and a company. As it continues to grow, it could be a person who helps a neighbor buy groceries.”

When identifying potential awardees, Andrew Laska, longtime Richardson resident and RHNA board representative, said that Hand was a natural fit. “Barry was one of the guys beating the drums to get people involved in doing things,” Laska said. “He’s had successes and inspired others.”

The choice for recognizing a neighborhood supporter was equally evident.

“Bill is the kind of guy who is about neighborhood. He’s an ally and supporter and has been consistent from the get go,” Laska said. “After Alamo finally opened, we had an ice storm and power outages. He texted me, saying ‘we’re going to open this place, have free coffee and soup, and open theaters showing kid-friendly movies.’”

Citizen Neighbor of the Year

In 2005, Hand was living in what was then known as southwest Richardson where he noticed some real threats to the neighborhood integrity.

“Apartments on West Spring Valley were getting really bad, and we were concerned about how the blight would ultimately affect the perception and property values of the neighborhood,” Hand said. “We decided we had better get something going and went to city council with a five-point plan for excellence that included low-hanging fruit like picking up bulky trash and not let it wait for days.”

To begin the West Spring Valley turnaround, Laska, Hand and others began forming alliances with other neighborhood associations such as Waterview Preservation, Heights Park and Richardson Heights. Southwest Richardson became Cottonwood Heights, for which Hand was the president. Those alliances continue to grow today.

“We were instrumental to shoring up Richardson Heights Shopping Center and worked hard to support the catalyst Alamo Drafthouse,” Hand said. “We also worked to support Dover Elementary because it is our neighborhood school, which we strongly believe is the one common bond we have. From there, I landed on the City Plan Commission around 2008 and was able to implement wider influence there.”

To Hand, the award is special and an acknowledgement of hard work accomplished by many people.

“I think there is no better award that a citizen can receive than one for helping to improve neighborhoods,” he said. “The fact that it came from a neighborhood meant the most to me. It wasn’t from the establishment or academia. It was from the people.”

Neighborhood Ally of the Year

When DiGaetano and his team explored Richardson as a possible location, the demographics and location were the draw. But, when a crowd of neighbors showed up at a city council meeting to support them at their first planning and zoning meeting, it solidified the decision.

“The award is a great honor. Alamo strives to be a neighborhood theater and it is always nice to be recognized as such,” DiGaetano said. “The community was an integral part of why we chose Richardson and, to this day, are the reason we are so successful.”

The Giving Tree

“We love our hood. A ‘thank you’ is just an added [expression]. Whether it’s little or big what people do, we just want people to know it’s appreciated,” Laska said. “Those are the people who are making the neighborhood what it is. We’re trying to breathe new life into everything.”

As the RHNA board toyed with ideas for how the award would look, they thought what better way than with wood from a red oak tree that had been knocked down in the neighborhood. Trees are one of Richardson Heights’ signature traits, and the red oak was natural material that could be repurposed again and again for future awards.

Board members stepped up. Jernigan had the idea of etching into the wood and sketched the RHNA logo. Another board member turned her sketch into a graphic design, and another had equipment to etch the design.

“My hope is that this neighborhood award will spread throughout the city,” Laska said. “Great cities are collections of great neighborhoods.”


About the author

Susan Yost An 11-year resident of Richardson, Susan Yost is a marketing strategist and writer who is passionate about inspiring creativity that helps communities and families grow stronger.