Donning fluorescent orange vests and armed with trash bags and bottles of water, more than 200 people worked together Saturday to clean up North Columbia.
Volunteer groups picked up everything from empty bottles and cigarette butts to bits of fireworks and empty food wrappers, filling hundreds of trash bags.
Eleven sanitation trucks, each capable of carrying nearly three tons of debris, were on standby to haul away the trash at the end of the event.
The city is focused on North Columbia because there have been more than 250 serious crimes reported in the area in the past three years.
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The cleanup gave North Columbia residents a chance to learn more about their neighbors.
“This pulls the neighbors together,” said Joyce Latimer.
Christina Cobb, 27, said she was born and raised in North Columbia.
“I’m a social worker by nature, so I believe in working for my community,” she said. “If you want it to be nice, you have to put in your own work and not expect others to do it for you.”
Volunteers of all ages broke into groups and dispersed throughout the North Main Street, Monticello Road, Fairfield Road and Farrow Road areas.
The cleanup started at 8 a.m. Because so many people showed up, it ended an hour early, around noon. Volunteers enjoyed a cookout in Hyatt Park to celebrate their success.
A few volunteers told us why they decided to help Saturday.
Nearly half a dozen members of Boy Scout Troop 737 earned community service hours at the cleanup.
“I wanted to teach the guys that part of being a Boy Scout is giving back to the community,” said Scout Master Bruce Holmes.
Holmes, 46, has been involved in the Boy Scouts since the third grade and has been a Scout master and Pontiac resident for eight years.
By encouraging the boys to volunteer in North Columbia, he hoped to show them that giving back in other areas of the city is just as important as cleaning up their own neighborhoods.
“We saw the article in the paper about North Columbia,” he said. After reading about the need for volunteers, he e-mailed Troop 737 members to see who could help.
Mary Thomas, 60, lives in the Hyatt Park neighborhood and is a member of the Hyatt Park Neighborhood Association, the Advising Board and the Crime Watch Committee.
“I constantly clean out here,” she said as she slipped an empty bottle into her trash bag. “When I’m not working, I’m cleaning.”
She regularly encourages neighborhood children to pick up litter.
“I give the kids hot dogs, cookies and punch after we clean up,” she said. “They’ll look for me because they know I like to clean up the neighborhood.”
Thomas was surrounded Saturday by teen volunteers who were quickly filling their own trash bags with litter.
“I have my husband, Douglas Thomas, out here, too,” she said. “Anything we miss, he’s back there picking it up.”
“I got gloves on because I’m picking up trash all over the place,” said 2-year-old Tamia Devine.
She had her own trash bag and was accompanied by her parents, Jamie Devine, 33, and City Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, 35.
The family has lived in the Earlewood neighborhood for five years and was eager to help clean up. They started at Arden Elementary School and fanned out to nearby streets.
“We were wanting to do something for North Columbia, and we want to teach Tamia at a young age about helping out and cleaning up,” Tameika Devine said.
“She watches ‘Dora the Explorer’ and wants to be like her. There is an episode where Dora picks up trash along the beach.”
By early morning, the family had collected three bags of trash, and Tamia was running along a sidewalk near Columbia College searching for more debris.
“I live here so I have a vested interest in the community,” said Tiffany Hevel, 31.
She has lived in North Columbia for three years and has seen litter and crime plague the streets.
“I can’t expect everyone to help us. The litter is an eyesore,” she said. “People have an opinion of us, and we’re trying to improve their perceptions of who we are.”
In a two-block radius, Hevel and a handful of other volunteers collected five bags of trash and were filling four more.
“I think the problem is a lot of people in the neighborhood feel abandoned by the city,” she said. “They’ve given up hope. By doing this, the community will realize that people do care about them and their situations.”
Hevel hopes that cleaning up the litter as a community will help alleviate the crime problem in North Columbia, too.
“The criminals will realize we’re watching them and we notice what’s happening.”