Students create ‘Litter Free Zone’ in Auburn Gresham

Several Oglesby Elementary students help to bag recycleable items into blue bags.

Jamiyla Boone

Not in my backyard. That's the rallying cry of about 100 high school students working to clean up their South Side community with the help of the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corp. (GADC).

Every other week, the students go door to door spreading the word on recycling and dropping off blue bags. Their goal: to make Auburn Gresham litter free.

Since the Litter Free Zone Initiative began last October, volunteers have collected more than 5,000 pounds of recyclable materials and encouraged hundreds of residents to throw their paper, metal and plastic into blue bins rather than trash cans. Project coordinators say they aim to help the environment, beautify the neighborhood and bring residents together.

"It's made a recognizable change," said Hubert Newkirk, Litter Free Zone coordinator for GADC, an NCP lead agency.

Driving down 79th Street, wind-blown newspapers and cigarette-pocked sidewalks give way to clean pavement and grassy strips that are relatively free of the otherwise ubiquitous papers and pop cans.

GADC employee Jamiyla Boone says the group would like to erect signs that read "You are entering a litter-free zone" at the boundary lines, from 75th Street to 83rd Street and from Halsted Street to Racine Avenue, and advertise the initiative on the CTA's 79th Street buses.

The half-square-mile area is serving as an experiment which, if successful, will expand to cover four square miles of Auburn Gresham and its adjoining communities of Englewood and West Chatham. Already, the Litter Free Zone Initiative is attracting the attention of other Chicago neighborhoods.

"I've gotten calls from a West Side and two North Side communities asking us to help them design a program like this one," said Carlos Nelson, GADC executive director.

Nelson came up with the idea after seeing the success of Cleanslate, another local program that helps adults learn job skills while cleaning up the community.

Litter had been a pervasive problem for a long time, said Nelson, ever since Auburn Gresham's business district declined during the 1970s and 1980s and residential flight left strips of vacant buildings. Today, the 79th Street business district has rebounded thanks to community efforts and committed residents, and Nelson would like to see the new recycling initiative build social connections between generations.

GADC's Litter Free Zone Coordinator, Hubert Newkirk shares vital information to Perspectives Charter School students about the importance of recycling and being a litter free community.

Jamiyla Boone

One of the apartment buildings served by the program is Senior Suites, which offers 85 affordable units for residents aged 62 and older.

"The elderly segment is seeing black youth engaged in positive work, helping the community and the environment," said Nelson. "We're educating the youth and reconnecting with the elderly."

The program mimics the city's soon-to-be-defunct “blue bag” recycling program but uses none of the city's resources. The Litter Free Zone Initiative is a grassroots effort spearheaded by Nelson, and its funds come from LISC/Chicago and the MacArthur Foundation. In its first year, the program has cost $100,000.

The four participating schools are Simeon Career Academy, Oglesby Elementary School, Leo Catholic High School and Perspectives Charter Schools.

Students sign onto the program as Litter Free Zone Ambassadors and they earn points for collecting the most recyclable material. Every other week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, they hit the streets to remind residents to recycle and to empty the blue bins.

Elementary school students focus on home recycling efforts, while high school students focus on the neighborhood and the litter outdoors. Once a month, the class with the most points wins a pizza party. Students can also earn credit for community service hours.

After the student volunteers collect the bags of recyclables, they leave them at the end of each block for Newkirk, who loads the bags into his truck and deposits them at the community recycling center.

Before the Litter Free Zone Initiative was created, the city's Streets and Sanitation Department provided inadequate service, said Newkirk, which discouraged residents from recycling.

"If you were trying to recycle, they'd just throw the bags in the back with the rest of the garbage and it would all get mixed together," he said.

Newkirk, a superintendent of Streets and Sanitation before retiring in 2006, said Nelson drew him out of retirement to get involved. While working for the city, Newkirk said he might pick up three bags a month in the blue bag program. Now, he easily picks up 105 bags on a single day during his weekly pickup.

In the last year, four local businesses have started their own recycling programs, including Leverette’s Barber Shop and BJ's Market & Bakery.

The Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corp. plans to expand its target area and install kiosks where residents can learn more about the recycling program and other environmental and community events.

Newkirk said advertisements about the initiative will appear on billboards in Auburn Gresham beginning June 23.