With a little motivation from my brother, he and his wife and my wife and I decided to do a little community service on an oddly foggy Monday morning in St. Louis. We headed north from our respective homes to the College Hill neighborhood on the north side of St. Louis City to clean up some well-littered streets. The neighborhood is comprised almost entirely of lower income African Americans and has not seen any significant investment in the past few decades. The effort, along with many others around town, was organized by the United Way in a partnership with a local community organization.
We gathered with like-minded folks from all backgrounds and areas of town to help clean up the streets in one of the poorer areas of town. The meeting place was an old church that seemed to be used with regularity but was in much disrepair, just like most of the homes we could see. While the effort made us all feel better, and the streets surely looked better than they had when we started, I feel much of our work was for naught.
Theresa, our block leader, is a resident of the area and actually lives on the block we cleaned. She said she would move if her income was higher. She also said that the police don’t do anything to help deter crime and often just drive by groups of men involved in dealing drugs. Her outlook for the area was far from optimistic though she seemed to be a generally positive person.
I’m glad we took time to get out of the house and do something worthwhile instead of just lounging on our day off. At lunch afterward we discussed whether what we did was worth it. I suppose the answer to that question depends on who’s asking it. Metaphorically, we put bandages on cancer. As the ones applying the bandages we felt good because we were doing something, anything. But, just as bandages are temporary, so are clean streets. We witnessed some of the residents of the block coming and going. A few said hello and a few just ignored us. This was their street we were cleaning. Not one person I met said thank you. I wonder if the people with the cancer noticed, or even cared. A healthy neighborhood starts with active residents. I applaud Theresa’s commitment but she seemed to be alone in her fight.
You have to wonder if the people you’re helping don’t appreciate your help, why help at all? Cynicism aside, there were many other activities scheduled that day that surely had a greater and more lasting impact on the community. I don’t regret our decision to volunteer and will most definitely do it again; next time I’ll just have to be more selective in the activity I pick.