Larry Collins "75" Retills Soil

Oregonian
Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Saturday's community celebration at a Northeast Portland park is an offering of redemption, a day of atonement.

Loretta Johnson, who says she smoked crack cocaine on and off for more than 15 years, wants to make good after being clean for eight years.

Johnson birthed six children during her drug haze. Her parents, pastors of a Northeast Portland church, adopted some. She lost the fifth to the state's foster care system when he was 6 months old. And she's raising her last, a daughter who will be 8 next month.

"I went into labor with every single one after I had just got through smoking crack," says Johnson, who now schedules surgery appointments at a Washington County hospital. "I used to smoke like a broken stove."

Larry Collins says he never used drugs but made a living for five years selling large amounts of cocaine. He got busted about 12 years ago, turned his life around and now wants to empower young people to turn their apathy into positive action.

"I was considered, quote, unquote, a major drug dealer," says Collins, who now works in the mailroom at The Oregonian's press plant. "I was on the top of everybody's wish list to get busted."

Together, the two churchgoing friends with shady pasts but shining futures corralled support from individuals, businesses, churches and politicians to organize what they call "A Day of Retilling the Soil."

"The corrosive effects of poverty, drug abuse, neglected children and domestic violence have poisoned the soil of Northeast Portland," Collins and Johnson wrote in a letter to potential sponsors. "And the seeds of fear, low self-esteem and powerlessness have taken root. But it does not have to be this way."

On Saturday, a Retilling the Soil breakfast will begin at 8:15 a.m., with doughnuts and coffee donated by Starbucks. From there, three groups of volunteers will pick up trash with bags and gloves provided by SOLV, a nonprofit that focuses on cleanup projects around the state.

At noon, a community celebration at Irving Park, near Northeast Seventh Avenue and Fremont Street, will include gospel choirs, three gospel rap groups and music from some of Portland's headliners, including Linda Hornbuckle, Andy Stokes and Kirk Green.
 
Anti-gang activist John Canda, who on Friday stops directing the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods to start a newly created job as the city's violence-prevention director, will introduce his new boss, Portland Mayor Tom Potter, who is expected to proclaim Saturday as Retilling the Soil Day.
 
Even more doors opened as Collins and Johnson issued pleas for help. Free hot dogs and hamburgers will be cooked on a barbecue pit donated by True Value Hardware. The ice cream comes from Alpenrose Dairy, soda from Pepsi-Cola and bottled water from Albertson's.
 
In all, cash donations totaled more than $3,000. Rep. Chip Shields gave $100. Bruce Frydenlund, founder of the Web-conferencing company Encounter Collaborative, gave $500. And Providence Portland Medical Center chipped in $750.
 
Portland Parks waived many of its park permit fees. Portland police officers agreed to provide security. And three churches -- Cornerstone Community, Powerhouse Temple and Hughes Memorial United Methodist -- stood behind the project, managed the budget and vouched for Collins' and Johnson's credibility.
 
"They believed in what we were doing," Collins says. "Both of us had a shady background. But we're making a difference in the community. I made a mistake, now it's time to do something about it. "
 
(For cleanup meeting spots, check out www.solv.org. For donations, call Collins at 503-752-8356 )
 
The only other thing you can do now is show up. Perhaps bring some canned food, Collins says, "so you can feed somebody else down the road."
 
That's what community is about.
 
S. Renee Mitchell: 503-221-8142; rmitch@news.oregonian.com