The Extreme Community Makeover crew and volunteers from multiple organizations teamed up on Saturday, September 12th, to clean alleys, paint a house, and pull weeds in the Swansea neighborhood in North Denver. It was my first time volunteering with ECM and a fellow member of the Communications Team, Anja, showed me the ropes.
Volunteers with RK Cares set to work painting a resident’s beautiful ranch style home a modest green, the favorite color of the home owner. RK Cares’ volunteers also cleaned alleys, along with volunteers from 5280 Waste Solutions.
I think alleys have a distinctly negative connotation. You never hear someone say ‘lets meet in the alley later’ and think ‘I am about to do something that will positively impact my community.’ But why not? As Angela, Executive Director of Extreme Community Makeover pointed out, “an alley is a central connection point for a community…, it intersects with multiple people.” This connection point is an opportunity for communities to grow closer, and as we spent time with the volunteers in the alleys, this became more apparent.
Anja and I walked down the alley later in the day and quickly noticed the change in scenery. With trash removed, weeds pulled, and the concrete clean, the alley looked like a blank canvas. Anja and I asked volunteers what they would do in an alley if they could do anything. Delorian, a volunteer with RK Cares, immediately responded that she would plant flowers, specifically she would plant roses and sunflowers. “Bright color, for sure,” she emphasized, “picture driving through an alley with flowers.” Diana, a member of the ECM Follow-Up Team told us that she does, in fact, have flowers in her alley. “We have a little mini garden in our alley and it has these beautiful tall flowers and every time I take out the trash it’s like this golden little beautiful spot in this dirty nasty alley and it makes me so happy.”
Delorian also suggested that the community could host a block party in the alley. Delorian’s cousin Jamiah, also a volunteer with RK Cares, lit up as the pair brainstormed ideas for an alleyway block party. Jamiah and Delorian told us about the importance of their Jamaican heritage in choosing music and food for their event. When asked what food she would bring Jamiah interjected with “definitely curry.” The idea of a “cultural potluck” came up when Jamiah remembered a residents’ Hispanic heritage and wondered what food they might contribute to the alley party.
Angela recalls that in previous Go: Westwood volunteer days in the Westwood neighborhood, ECM has organized residents and volunteers to paint murals. “If you create a space that is more inviting and welcoming I think that makes a big difference too. To me it’s fun to see people’s creativity that when you have that blank canvas like a fence.”
Wayne, winner of the RK Cares volunteer of the year award, talked about the value alleys serve for sharing resources with neighbors. Amongst the trash, members of the community can find objects to reuse. Wayne mentioned that when he lived downtown, “as long as I had something usable… I could set it out by the dumpster and it would be gone in less than 20 minutes.” He told us , “I found a stack of tile I could use in my bathroom.”
I couldn’t help but wonder what I’d do in my own neighborhood’s alley. I imagine that my roommate would grill up hot dogs and offer them to each and every passerby. It would not matter if he knew their name or if they had just happened to jog by the grill. Hot dog in hand, he would ask what condiments a person would like on their hot dog. Before they could ask why he is in the alley grilling hot dogs, he would point them to one of the many lawn chairs he brought out for this specific situation. I’d sit nearby, an ABBA mural behind me, eager to ask everyone what changes they would make in their alleys because every response I received on Saturday surprised and intrigued me. Unexpectedly, our community would strengthen.
Angela had some reflections of her own about the value of alley cleanup projects. “I think the alley cleanup projects that we do are so important because I am a big proponent of what you surround yourself with is often reflective of how you feel internally. So if you live in a space that is completely filled with trash and debris that [messy feeling] often is internalized in feeling chaotic and messy on the inside. That’s why I think the work Extreme Community Makeover does is really important because it’s saying ‘we’re going to take pride in the space that we share, we’re going to keep it clean, and we’re taking ownership in it.” I hope that when we return to Swansea for future work days, there will be more flowers in the alleys.
Although Anja and I did not hear from everyone who came out on Saturday, I know I’ll have the opportunity to learn more next week. I think the volunteers ultimately came out to put in hard work and bring a new life to parts of the community. Luckily, it seems that in between pulling weeds, removing trash, and painting over graffiti, people also enjoy imagining what comes next.
Kevin – ECM Communications Team