Cara Program brings CleanSlate to 79th Street

Eric Weinheimer pulls over his sedan toward a middle-aged man in a bright yellow-green outfit, emblazoned with "CleanSlate," who is picking up garbage next to a bus stop.

"Hey, Larry. How many people have you greeted today?""Fifty," Larry replies. "Can you get to 100? Find 'em," Weinheimer encourages him, before continuing down the road.

Cleanslate Group

In the Cleanslate program, a friendly attitude is a key step to neighborhood cleanup and job advancement.

Photo: Eric Young Smith

President and CEO of The Cara Program, which launched the CleanSlate Initiative in Auburn-Gresham last June and in Quad Communities in February, Weinheimer wants guys like Larry to make sure they get noticed.

In the Cleanslate program, a friendly attitude is a key step to neighborhood cleanup and job advancement.

"They're ambassadors. We want this to be a very high-end, professional business," he says. "For the community to see these guys out every day, it makes a statement."

People ask when the cleanup team will leave the neighborhood, Weinheimer says, "and it sets a new tone" when they realize CleanSlate isn't going anywhere. The team collected more  than 4,500 bags of garbage and recyclables in the first half of 2006. Download the quarterly report here.

Moving on up

But guys like Larry won't stay long, because "CleanSlate is a vehicle to get them placed in jobs." Interns are given leads in such sectors as healthcare, financial services and hospitality, with "19 or 20" placed since last June, he says.

They spend one day a week in the Cara Program's West Loop offices interviewing with potential employers, checking job ads on computers, or meeting with placement staff.

Cleanslate Pair

Cleanslate teams work regularly on 79th Street in Auburn Gresham and on Cottage Grove (above) in the Quad Communities.

Photo: Eric Young Smith

The Cara Program hopes to place 220 interns this year, 270 next year and 320 more in 2008. Interns also learn job skills like how to dress, how to interact with customers and the importance of being on time.

Such "soft" skills are especially important for those who have spent time in prison, as many CleanSlate interns have. Interns are drug-tested at the outset, and the Cara Program reserves the right to do so again if staff has concerns.

"Many of them are struggling with sobriety, or their addiction, and we have linkages with other organizations that" address those issues, Weinheimer says.

Keeping busy

While they plan their next move, CleanSlate interns are hard at work. "Yesterday, we did 125 bags in the Quad Communities alone," Weinheimer says. "That's a lot of garbage."

He notes that the program tries to strike a balance between covering the widest possible area and hitting commercial streets intensively, focusing on the area around 79th Street in Auburn Gresham and Cottage Grove Avenue in the Quad Communities.

Interns start at 6 a.m. with a "motivations" session to get them physically and psychologically prepared to attack their day, then they head into the street. Their goal is to clean the primary business districts by 9:30 a.m. , and they continue until 1 p.m.

The City of Chicago would like the program to expand to Uptown in June and possibly to Englewood later in 2006, Weinheimer says.

Cleanslate Report

Quarterly progress reports on Cleanslate can be accessed at

"The ward superintendents, they're thrilled. They can focus on other things," he says. "We have to make sure we have a physical presence in the community. It's like a McDonald's franchise – a CleanSlate office in each community."

"We're surprised at the impact on the community," says Maria Kim, director of development for the Cara Program. "We've talked to moms who said they had never walked their kids to school under this viaduct because of the broken glass. It's had an impact on the physical community."

Making a difference

Interns say it has impacted them, as well. Larod Dawson, 26, who spent eight years in prison ending last September, hopes to work construction. "I was going the wrong way. I was lost," he says. "The Cara Program gave me the motivation and the spirit to want to be someone."

With zero job experience, the program has been invaluable in a more practical regard, as well, Dawson says. "It's teaching me the values of work," he says. "It taught me to be on time. It taught me to get along with my co-workers. We've all got to stick together."

Mario Newton, 35, says he spent four years in prison starting at age 19 and still has problems finding work because of his record. He would like to work as a mentor or counselor for young people.

"I want to give back, somehow," he says. "This program gives us a chance to prove ourselves. I don't mind proving myself to anyone."

Newton, out with two co-workers sweeping and raking broken glass and other debris out of a vacant lot at 74th and Eggleston, agrees residents appreciate their hard work.

"They love us being out here," he says. "The more we show our faces, the more they keep it clean. [Otherwise], they know we have to clean it up."

To see the quarterly progress report for CleanSlate, click through to