In a fast-paced world, neighbors have put up walls.
“I think, in general, our communities can be lonely and we don’t always watch out for each other,” said Clifton resident Cassandra Clement.
But the fences closing in on Clifton Plaza are opening up a conversation started by 19-year-old Troy Melnyk.
The lifelong Clifton resident has Angelman syndrome, a genetic disorder with symptoms similar to some forms of autism. He’s non-verbal but has a deep love for people.
“When he’s happy, there’s just pure happiness and you know that he’s having a great time,” said Clement, Troy’s mom. “Like any human being, when he’s happy, you know it, when he’s unhappy, you know it. He doesn’t have any societal pressures to act a certain way, so if he’s done, he’s done.”
Clement and her husband, Nestor, noticed a change in Troy when they got their pup, Izzy. Once hesitant with animals, Troy’s world was opened up to the love of man’s best friend.
“They will hang out together, she will crawl into bed with him and sleep with him and (he) will gently tease her to get her to play with him,” said Nestor Melnyk, “That really fostered this love for dogs.”
The family realized that Izzy needed a place to play and socialize, so they start speaking with neighbors in Clifton.
“And neighbors said, ‘Man, I really wish we had a dog park!'” said Clement. So Troy and his parents started a pop-up puppy park.
Once a month, the community comes together with their four-legged friends for a two-hour window complete with adult beverages and treats for the dogs.
The outcome has been transformative.
“I was still getting stuff out of the car, and he was making a beeline to the plaza,” said Nestor Melnyk. “It’s like he knew it. He knew where he was coming and he loves it.”
Troy makes friends easily, but the park has allowed others to feel comfortable enough to go to him.
“My first dog park with him, Troy was kind of nervous when I came over and then the second dog park, he looked up at me and smiled when I saw him. And then, by the third dog park, he gave me a hug. That is one of the most special things,” said Claudia Reilly, one of the attendees of the pop-up dog park.
“That’s really all I want, is people to recognize him as a part of our community and a worthwhile part of our community, and it’s happening,” said Clement.
But Troy’s influence is growing. Neighbors began striking up conversations with each other that they wouldn’t have normally had passing by on the sidewalk.
“We’ve gotten to know people we’ve never met before, and we’ve lived here since 1991,” said Reilly.
Attendee ages range from teens to dog park people in their 70s. Melnyk said at this park, everyone’s welcome.
“My brother’s right there. He’s the one with Down syndrome walking right there, so I think it’s nice he gets to be around all these dogs,” said Kate Hurst, another dog park attendee. “This is just a good, comforting environment for them, especially because dogs are kinda therapeutic.”
Clement said there’s something to our furry friends that Troy knows all too well: They can get us interacting with each other better than any small talk ever could.
“The dogs make you talk to each other. The dogs approach each other, the dogs want to spend time together, so when you say, ‘What’s your dog’s name? Does your dog like other dogs?’ And you get to know each other in turn,” said Clement.
The Pop Up Puppy Party (PUPP) is so popular in Clifton, Troy and the other organizers are gathering signatures and creating a plan to make it a permanent fixture in the neighborhood.
“It’s not just building community for our family, but it’s also enhancing that local community here in Clifton. Our friends and neighbors here in Clifton and our lovable dogs,” said Melnyk.