Residents of the Williwaw neighborhood near Wasilla say it's had a bad reputation for years, as a place where addicts came to crash and brought crime with them.

“This house was a flop house. They sold drugs out here more than McDonald’s sold burgers, honestly,” said resident Abraham Sayen, pointing to a home with broken windows and trash piled inside.

The area was a specific focus of Mat-Su Borough leaders' calls for help last year, as they sought more Alaska State Troopers to help police problems ranging from drug use to murders. Troopers in the region have been strained amid falling staffing, despite a borough population that has risen from 74,000 to 104,000 people since 2005.

Sayen grew up in the subdivision and saw the problems get worse.

“It wasn’t bad at first. But by the time I was in eighth grade I was watching kids that were my friends get into drugs, [overdose] at the bus stop. I watched a lot go on here,” he said.

Sayen didn’t want kids in the neighborhood now to face the same situation. He and some other folks in the area started a nonprofit organization called FISH: Families for the Improvement of Safety and Health.

“I guess a lot of us didn’t realize there were a lot of people interested in helping us, but the problem was they had no avenue to do that,” said Rachel Sayen Lambert, Abraham's aunt and the group’s treasurer.

Over the past year nonprofit volunteers have made significant efforts to improve the quality of life in their community. They started a Neighborhood Watch program to deter crime. People are buying trashed properties and transforming them into livable homes.

Williwaw subdivision residents pose with trash collected during a May 2018 cleanup of their neighborhood. (Courtesy Abraham Sayen)

Last spring volunteers cleaned up four massive dumpsters full of garbage. And for the first time in 20 years, Sayen Lambert said, kids were able to go trick-or-treating in their own neighborhood last Halloween.

A child trick-or-treats in the Williwaw subdivision on Halloween in 2018, after residents' work to reclaim the neighborhood from crime. (Courtesy Abraham Sayen)

“We’ve came together and shown we can do this. We work with the troopers. It’s crazy, the whole neighborhood is almost 180 [degrees] in the past nine months,” Sayen said.

Now they’ve getting even more help from the borough. Assembly members noticed the people’s hard work and wanted to pitch in with revitalization efforts.

The borough installed 12 new street lights to improve safety around bus stops. Assembly members also donated a corner plot of land on Chickaloon and Copper Creek to be used for a new community park.

“It’s heartwarming to be a small part of this. It’s the best thing I’ve been able to do with the Assembly,” said District 2 Assemblyman Matthew Beck. “You have people talk to you about things they don’t like and they’re unhappy with, but to step up and do something is incredible and amazing.”

There are big plans for the 0.37-acre parcel.

“Later phases on our expectation is to have picnic tables, pavilions, a BBQ pit, a place for families to go and convene together, Sayen Lambert said.

She lives in Williwaw and runs a business there. She said having a safe place for kids to play is another step toward kicking the stigma of the neighborhood.

“Just because you say you live on Williwaw Way doesn’t make you a certain kind of person that’s negative. Our kids don’t deserve that.  The families that live here don’t deserve that,” Sayen Lambert said.

For Abraham Sayen, the lot is a sign of the changes Williwaw has seen.

“You can take something nasty and dilapidated and where the world gave up on it, you can make it beautiful,” he said.

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