If you live in certain city neighborhoods, there've surely been times when you've looked around and thought, "Are people filling their cars with litter and then driving through and purposefully distributing it along our blocks?" Although some areas have improved greatly in recent years, there's still generally enough trash from Jack in the Box alone to fill a good portion of your closest dumpster.
If you live in just about any city neighborhood, there are also surely times when you see the young folk of your neighborhood (any age from toddler on up) killing time with nothing to do, begging you to help you do yard work, wash the car, walk your dog or any other task that will while away the hours 'til the sun goes down.
Enter the Team Sweep Model Citizens program, an offshoot of the quasi-governmental nonprofit Operation SafeStreet. Now in its seventh year of operation, the entire Team Sweep concept is just another way to improve the quality of life in the city. The program's motto is "Cleaner Streets are Safer Streets," and the young people who participate may find their lives changed by much more than just picking up trash.
"We want our young people to become aware that the processes that go on in your community can really affect your individual life," says Velma Bell, executive director of Operation SafeStreet. "We know that if we can help them have a voice early on, we're helping them around other issues of self-empowerment."
The premise is a simple one that can work in just about any neighborhood: committed adult volunteers supervise teams of young people on the block where they live. Although the primary function of Team Sweep is neighborhood clean-ups, Bell and the other Operation SafeStreet staff have overseen some growth of that mission as the program has evolved. Early on, adult volunteers were reporting that the young people on their teams were seeking more opportunities to get involved in the life of their communities, to the extent that some teams have now gone beyond just litter patrols to participate as a group in such events as the Komen Foundation breast cancer walk, the Festival of Nations, the Juneteenth Celebration and more. For each enrichment activity they undertake, teams can earn credits toward bonus activities; you can imagine the popularity of the rewards such as trips to Six Flags and Cardinals baseball games.
Bell only sees the need for such activities growing. "In a military context, 'operation' brings to mind a short-term project that's somewhat time-limited, but the fact is that our projects are sustainable efforts, and well worth sustaining," she said.
Indeed, she and the core group of adult volunteers are always brainstorming the groups' next opportunities to provide community service and enrichment activities for the kids in their charge. "I never stop thinking of how to connect more dots," she laughs. Some of the best suggestions from ideas for exciting events to suggestions on how to make program administration smoother have come from the adult volunteers, who go through an initial training session and ongoing development workshops. For some, it's the first meaningful volunteering they've done, but their impact on the young volunteers is significant. To make the job a little easier, Team Sweep has instituted a "middle layer" of peer mentors. These are youth who are at the older end of the Team Sweep range (which runs from 7 to 17 years), who can serve as mentors to the youngest volunteers. The peer mentors, in turn, can look to the adult team leader for their own needs.
"We know that if you can get people active early in life, they tend to remain active as adults," Bell says. "And believe me, when some of our adult volunteers sit out for a while which they sometimes need to do for different reasons they still find kids coming around saying, 'When are we gonna do Team Sweep?' Once you've got these kids engaged, they're engaged!"
To find out more about starting a Team Sweep unit on your block, or if you are interested in joining an existing team, call 314-771-0501.