Hillside Clean Team program a hit with teenagers

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HILLSIDE — A clean community is a more attractive community. It often takes the next generation to remind residents of that fact. Spearheading a program in which high school teenagers are paid to clean up the township of Hillside, Mayor Dahlia Vertreese takes advantage of the opportunity to connect with the town’s youth.

Funded through a Clean Communities grant, which allows the teenagers to be paid for their services, the Community Clean Team is helping Hillside.

“We are in the Community Clean Team Program and we have approximately 15 members of our youth that help us clean up the community, educate the community, provide information about cleaning the community — and they’ve been doing a really good job,” Vertreese said in an Aug. 13 interview. “Every single day, they show up to clean up some really difficult spots of town that people have been complaining about, that we are just unable to usually get to.”

Hillside Community Center Recreation Director Al Hardy described their goal.

“The goal for the clean team is to hit hot spots throughout the township that are normally missed, such as bus stops, places like that,” Hardy said in an Aug. 13 interview “Some people come in and out of town and they might throw some paper on the ground. So, we kind of just pick up paper throughout the whole town, especially on the main streets. We do this Monday through Thursday.”

According to Vertreese, this program did not come together overnight.

“This actually came about in the springtime. We were talking about a program we wanted to do with the kids, but the pandemic hit, and we were unable to hire at that time,” Vertreese said, adding that the idea sparked many responses, even though the program could not begin in March, as originally intended. “The parents were asking about the program; we published it in the newsletter, and, from those responses, these kids are here today.

“People forget that, as mayor, I live here and I’m also a former teacher,” she continued. “The best source of information and some of your hardest workers are the kids. What I’ve been trying to do is move Hillside into a more positive, action-oriented and informed community. The best people to do that are children.”

Vertreese said youth are often at the forefront of all important movements.

“So, the civil rights movement, anything positive, has been done by young people,” Vertreese said. “So, I thought to myself, who better to clean our community, pick up this trash and really identify those problem areas than the kids in our community. We can raise them to invest in their communities and be better citizens in the future.”

Regarding the program, Hardy gives all credit to Vertreese, even with all the hard work he puts into it as well.

“It was the idea of Mayor Dahlia Vertreese,” Hardy said. “She saw the need. Just as she was going up and down the street, she saw the need for it. She heard residents saying that there needs to be more activity as it pertains to just cleaning up. So, she decided to put this together. It was actually supposed to start in April, but due to COVID, this was pushed back. This was supposed to be one day a week and on the weekends. We put this together around that time.

“It’s not just me,” he continued. “I kind of do the day-to-day, but I work with administrative assistant Amber Jennings, Mary Dawkins over at the Senior Center and then you have Tyrese (Wooten-Outlaw), who works at the DPW, and he helps with the recycling aspect of things. The team is kind of comprised of that. On a day-to-day, it’s myself and Monique Fletcher.”

With a set pay rate of $11 an hour, the summer program has a number of teens involved.

“The number of teenagers is around 15, ages 14 to 18,” Hardy said. “We’ve definitely seen a lot of success so far. The streets are being cleaner. People have been taking positive pictures, people have been honking horns in support, businesses have been letting the kids come in and get drinks, people have just come up to the teens to tell them what a good job they’ve been doing. Things like that have been very encouraging. Not just for me but for the children also to see that that is needed. As people are driving, they’re saying thank you. This is needed for our community.

“This is definitely a good feeling, and I think this is the seed to get people to clean up, not just their house or their block, because the kids are saying they’ll never just toss anything on the ground ever again. Hopefully, it just sparks that seed for everybody just to clean and just to reconsider how they throw away their trash,” he added.

Besides the COVID-19 outbreak, Hardy said there have been no issues since the program began in July.

“There have been no issues,” Hardy said. “It’s been a positive aspect of Hillside. The community is behind it. That’s all the feedback that I’ve been getting. I do see myself continuing this role in the upcoming years, hopefully. I think this is a great initiative for the kids just to get involved in the aspect of taking care of their community.

“The first day, I asked them if they’ve made up their bed,” he continued. “That’s just a personal reference. So, if they’re able to make up their bed and take that personal responsibility, they’re able to, No. 1, start their day off correctly. You’re taking that personal responsibility to take care of yourself. You’re getting something accomplished. So, as the children are coming here, it’s just the next step of getting things accomplished in their community.”

As a former teacher, spending time with children is something Vertreese really enjoys.

“It’s wonderful,” Vertreese said. “I have a great group of kids. They are very responsible; they report that they enjoy doing the work, they see a lot of the problems, they themselves have begun to work on a brochure to try to educate the citizens about how to properly dispose of certain items, the issues and what’s causing some of these hot spots. The fact that Hillside is a commuter town, there’s a lot of walking and people just throw trash everywhere. The kids are just trying to bring more awareness to residents to just clean up in front of their property and just help the town be better.”

Pria, a rising Hillside High School senior who is a part of the Community Clean Team, has high regard for the program.

“What we do every day is we go around town and pick up bottles and trash that people would throw around. We make sure everything looks up to par,” Pria said on Aug. 13. “I like this program because when I’m out with my family, or just with my friends, I notice if they’re eating something and they try to throw the wrapper anywhere, I would ask if they can pick it up. I just feel like they have to pick it up because this is what I do every day. It’ll be wrong if I let others just throw things on the floor and not say anything.”

According to Pria, she is being taught valuable lessons through this experience.

“This program teaches you, for one, how to clean up after yourself,” Pria said. “Just because we’re picking up trash and bottles, it has an affect because this teaches you discipline. For example, cleaning your house, not leaving clothes on the floor, cleaning your bathroom, making up your bed, washing the dishes, discipline such as that. If you have a roommate and you don’t clean up after yourself, that’ll cause a big issue.”

Focused on attending a historically black college or university next fall, the rising senior hopes her efforts will leave a legacy in Hillside.

“I hope when people see us picking up trash and bottles, I hope they notice and actually make a change,” Pria said. “When we get recognition for what we’re doing, it feels good. A lot of people in the street, they would beep their car horns or say thank you and tell us how proud they are of us. I wouldn’t mind doing community service in this aspect. I do it for cheer, so it’s nothing new to me.”

Community Clean Team member Pierre, a 15-year-old rising Hillside High School sophomore, echoed the sentiment.

“This program is great,” Pierre said on Aug. 13. “I love cleaning up the community and it gives a positive image to others to not litter anymore and it shows us that we care about the community. It’s a great experience. This is not something I would leave. Even after I go on to college, I’ll always come back because Hillside is a great community.

“I have a lot of friends who care about this community as well,” he continued. “It’s great to know that everyone comes together as a community to help. I love the recognition that we’ve been getting from residents because it pushes a positive message, which is to clean up Hillside and to better where we live.”

Also involved in the Community Clean Team is 15-year-old Godard, who is also a rising Hillside High School sophomore. The teenager said he enjoys the recognition he has been getting from residents.

“The program originally was supposed to be during the spring but since COVID-19 changed a lot of things, it changed into a summer program,” Godard said on Aug. 13. “Over the summer, we’ve been collecting garbage, passing out flyers and pamphlets, and informing others about what we’re doing and how to keep the town clean.

“Regarding recognition, people have been wanting to donate food, or give generous donations and we’ve been acknowledged,” he continued. “I’m pretty sure they’ve mentioned many times on Facebook that people have seen us and posted us and talked about us. If the program does continue, maybe I could come back and talk about my experiences to other kids who will be doing what I’m doing right now. I think that’ll be a nice thing.

“If the program is available next year, I’ll try and sign up for it again because I really did enjoy it. It was a cool program,” he added. “You clean your town and you get recognized for it. It’s all right to have recognition, but I’m still doing the work and getting the job done.”

Photos by EmilyAnn Jackman