A KINDER, GENTLER COFFELT

In the unforgiving world of the Coffelt housing project, even the little victories are hard to come by. The 1,000 or so people who live in the public-housing project a mile due south of the Arizona State Capitol can't just say no to poverty.

Rudolph Valentino Buchanan, the coordinator of the Coffelt's community-services program, knows this as well as anyone. So when Buchanan got word recently that a prestigious award from the City of Phoenix was coming the project's way, "I had one big old smile on my face for a long time," he says.

The city's Human Relations Commission earlier this month selected the Coffelt Youth Club and the Coffelt Tenant Council for the Neighborhood Special Achievement Award. This ain't small potatoes. Coffelt went up against about seventy other applicants in the city's second annual contest, and, Buchanan says, "You'd better believe there are a lot of surprised people out there that someone from this, quote, bad part of town, would even apply for something like this."

Contest coordinator Beverly Harvey says the Coffelt competed against far more well-off entrants. "Every single council district had entries," she says. "There were homeowners' associations, historic associations, you name it. It's absolutely remarkable that a public-housing group would win. There were some who didn't think it was fair for them to have to run against other kinds of neighborhoods, but they did, and I think they are a very appropriate choice. What they have accomplished can be a national model."

A panel of judges sought, among other things, to learn if "major obstacles were overcome to accomplish goals." In the Coffelt's case, the mere existence of the youth club and a tenant council was a victory.

"I knew this place was like hell when I started, but I also know that some of these people are doing the best they can," Buchanan said last December in a New Times profile of the Coffelt. "Our jobs are to try to provide some kind of alternative to the hell."

Though he usually speaks softly and politely, Buchanan has spent part of his eighteen months at the Coffelt physically and verbally strong-arming drug dealers into taking their business off the streets in the area of 19th Avenue and Buckeye Road.

A few years ago, homeboys would brazenly hawk crack cocaine and other drugs at all hours on the project's street corners. That practice largely has been quelled since Buchanan and a team of walking-beat Phoenix police officers came along.

Buchanan started the Coffelt Youth Club soon into his tenure at the project. Few teens joined up at first, but now more than fifty kids participate in weekly meetings, one-on-one counseling with Buchanan, car washes, dances and fix-ups of older residents' apartments and yards.

"We still have a long way to go here, but we have made a positive dent and we're proud of that," Buchanan says.

The city's Beverly Harvey notes that "Rudy is a catalyst and it is Rudy who has empowered these people, but it is not `Rudy's group.' The youth club has accomplished what it's accomplished, and so has the tenant council."

Buchanan recognizes, of course, that awards--while terrific as a morale- and ego-booster--don't mean a lot in the long run. "We have to keep the momentum going, and that's not an easy thing to do here," he says. "We just don't want things to go back to the way they were."

But Buchanan, a Phoenix native and an ex-con who straightened out his own life years ago, won't be around the Coffelt much longer. He has taken a new job in the west Valley town of Avondale and says, "Similar problems there. Lots of drugs and booze problems with kids. I've got a big challenge up the road."

But, he adds, "I'll be coming back here to Coffelt to see how things are going. This place got into my blood, and it would really hurt if the good kids we have here start doing bad stuff."

"We still have a long way to go here, but we have made a positive dent and we're proud of that," Rudy Buchanan says.

"We have to keep the momentum going, and that's not an easy thing to do here. We just don't want things to go back to the way they were.

 
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