CAIRO – “Cairo united will never be defeated.”
That was the rallying cry of about 30 people who marched 14 blocks through the heart of Cairo on Saturday morning to show solidarity and support for their struggling community. A dozen or so other people cheered them on along the way.
“We have to come together and show that we still have a voice,” said Gabrielle Harris, who organized the Cairo Matters walk. Harris is the owner of G&L Clothing, as well as vice president of the Cairo School District board and director of the addiction intervention program at Chesi Community Health Emergency Services, Inc.
After the walk, the participants met at a community center also owned by Harris, and talked about strategies for getting involved and making positive changes. “It’s going to be more than just a march,” Harris said.
At the meeting’s conclusion, Harris pitched a community forum as a next step, and asked for volunteers to help plan it.
Harris said he plans to organize the forum for late February, and invite various public and agency officials to speak to the community and share their own ideas and concerns, as well as to make themselves available to answer questions from citizens.
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Brittany Matthews, a lifelong Cairo resident, said she joined the march because she wants to offer her support and time to any efforts that can make a difference in Cairo. “We have to remain active so that we can better our town for the families and the kids,” said Matthews, an SIU student studying early childhood education.
At the top of the meeting that followed the walk, Harris wrote on a large notepad, “What is the problem?” and then asked the people in attendance to begin answering that question. The problems attendees named included a lack of businesses, inadequate housing, high utility bills, a lack of community involvement, parent involvement and accountability and transparency among governmental bodies and elected leaders.
Steve Tarver, an owner of the Talk of the Town bar in Cairo, said that when the community is upset about the actions of elected or appointed leaders, they need to show up at meetings by the hundreds to make a statement. He encouraged people to attend meetings of the Alexander County Board and housing authority board to voice concerns about problems within public housing as well as with its management. "If we lose housing, we lose the city," Tarver said.
Sharon Rembiesa, who has lived in Cairo since the late-1970s, said she participated in walk because she has concerns about the quality of the public housing, as she recently moved into the Shuekmaker building, and is battling infestation. Rembiesa said she’s also worried about Cairo's struggling economy.
“I hope that they can get stuff like a grocery store again,” she said. “It’s difficult when you don’t have a vehicle to get transportation to towns where there is a grocery store.”
The town’s only grocery store, Wonder Market, closed in December. There is a Dollar General in Cairo, but food options are limited, especially in terms of fresh produce. The next closest grocery stores are about 10 minutes away, in Mounds, and Wickliffe, Kentucky. Public transportation is available, but taking the bus, depending on where one is on the drop off and pickup schedule, can take hours, she said. If someone gives her a ride, Rembiesa said she’s often asked for $10 to get to Wickliffe or Mounds, and $20 to $30 to go to Cape Girardeau.
On a fixed income, she said, spending that amount of money on transportation eats into her grocery budget, and could mean she runs low on healthy food options by month's end.
Harris said he was pleased with the turnout, but hoped more Cairo citizens would show up. "The movement may start small, but it will continue to build," he said.
On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI
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