It was a watershed moment for Dee Debenport.

The chairwoman of the Merion Village Block Watch program saw neighbors across the South Side coming together July 31 for National Night Out, a movement that seeks to unite residents with safety forces and promote anti-crime efforts.

"It was really my epiphany," Debenport said. "Oh my God, we're working together so beautifully. This is a dream."

True, they were united, but only for one evening. Debenport wants to make it permanent.

She is expanding her neighborhood's program to include German Village, Schumacher Place and the Brewery District.

"It's because we have the same criminals and social issues," Debenport said. "You need to watch your neighbor's back.

"If something looks wrong, call the police. The crime that's not reported doesn't exist."

She has been taking her mission to the streets, talking to residents and business owners, asking them to support the effort.

Debenport said it is not uncommon for her to be driving past Schiller Park at night, telling runners the park closes at 11 p.m. and it's not safe at night.

And when she's on the beat, she also reports criminal activity and works with police to beef up security at hot spots.

There is no official membership, she said. People communicate by email, private messaging, in person and via the internet on Nextdoor and Facebook, Debenport said.

There are no dues, just donations for community events, she said.

One of her new supporters is Valter Veliu, owner of Valter's at the Maennerchor, a restaurant inside the Columbus Maennerchor, 976 S. High St.

Veliu said he's seen an increase in crimes committed by youths.

A loosely knit gang of youths, preteens through young adults, has been roaming the area and involved in crimes ranging from graffiti tagging to assault.

"They're organized," he said. "They're trying to create a gang."

Vandalism and confrontations with customers are bad for business, Veliu said. Businesses in the area have banded together to pay special-duty officers for extra patrols. It's expensive, but appears to be working, he said.

Veliu said he'd like to see the neighborhood and police coalesce and break up the bands of marauding youngsters.

People can find more information about the Merion Village Block Watch program on the organization's Facebook page: MerionVillageBlockWatch.

The name will change to Connect 2 Protect after the first of the year, Debenport said.

Debenport said she is inviting people to attend the block watch's regular meetings, held at 6:30 p.m. the first Thursday of every month in the Columbus Metropolitan Library's Parsons Branch, 1113 Parsons Ave.

She said she wants criminals in the area to know "we're fighting back."

gseman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekGary