My Block, My Hood, My City provided needed snow shoveling on South and West sides

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This past winter the community organization My Block, My Hood, My City recruited volunteers to shovel snow on the South and West sides. It goes without saying that keeping sidewalks clear is is important for pedestrian safety and access. When sidewalks are covered with thick snow or glazed with hazardous ice, it’s a major barrier for seniors, people with disabilities, and families with small children. In some cases these conditions effectively trap people in their homes.

My Block, My Hood, My City’s approach stems from the idea that small acts of kindness can create waves of change around the world. melda March talked with Casey Merchant, MBMHMC’s senior manager of community development to learn more about the organization and their sidewalk clearing initiative.

Imedla March: Can you tell me a bit about how My Block, My Hood, My City started?

Casey Merchant: Yeah, MBMHMC was started by Jahmal Cole, our CEO and founder. He really resonated with the idea that small acts really make a difference. His first priority was expanding opportunities for underprivileged youth. Our mission then expanded into taking direct action to help local communities in Chicago.

IM: How did you come to be involved with MBMHMC? 

CM: I met Jahmal five years ago when he announced an event for his Explorers’ Program, a program to expand the horizons of underprivileged youth, and I showed up to help. 

IM: How did your organization get the idea to organize volunteers to shovel sidewalks for seniors and other residents who can use help with snow clearance?

CM: That was Jamal’s idea for the project. Jamal has preached that we should find simple ways to help in our community.

IM: When did you start the volunteer winter shoveling program?

SM: We started in 2016 and it’s still an active program. 

IM: How many people showed up to shovel in 2016?

SM: Three people showed up for our first event including Jamal.  In time we’ve grown to average a few hundred volunteers per event.

IM: What types of volunteers show up for these efforts?

SM: We get various individuals who want to help, including people living in nearby communities. The call to help is supplemented with our dispatch programs in which we collect addresses for the locations where help is needed. 

IM: How does this initiative lend itself to MBMHMC’s mission of strengthening Chicago’s communities? 

SM: Snow shoveling gives you a chance to participate and learn what it is like to organize and assemble as a group.  We want to think that these efforts are a training ground in order to handle bigger challenges.

IM: Are there repeat volunteers that show up at most events? Have there been any “aha” moments throughout this year’s program?

SM: It’s hard to boil it down because there are so many events. One person I can think of is Jacob Strom, who has been a repeat volunteer and serves on our associate board. [Jacob said,] “This virus truly affects everyone, especially seniors and those in underserved areas. One senior told me she was comforted by seeing that people cared.”

IM: Why is sidewalk clearance important to the organization?

SM: We are looking at the overall quality of life and connections between communities. Sidewalk shoveling improves one person’s life and makes winters more manageable. We are the most segregated city in the country. By coming together we are breaking down some barriers between race and class.

IM: What neighborhoods did this effort involve?

SM: Primarily, we serve the West and South sides of Chicago. Austin, Roseland, Chatham, West Garfield Park, to name a few. These communities have the most quality of life challenges, and these services impact them the most.

IM: Have residents of those affected areas come out to help?

SM: All our growth is organic, meaning we do this, and it spreads in multiple directions. We have several volunteer groups helping out;  for example, block clubs and sometimes whole families.

IM: To create teaching experiences in the neighborhood, has your organization made a conscious effort to recruit young people to help? 

SM: The younger volunteers have emerged from the “Be a part of the light” program. They volunteered to help with block clean-ups and we hired a few of them to install an MLK bridge quote. We will be adding shoveling as one of the youth volunteer opportunities.

IM: Are there plans to further push this volunteer opportunity to other seasons such as fall leaves clean-up, garbage clean-up, and the like?

SM: That’s actually been a large component of our community work for the past couple of years. We work with block clubs to clean vacant lots, roads, parks, etc. We host public events monthly, and interested volunteers can visit https://www.formyblock.org/events to learn more.

IM: Awesome. What are some upcoming initiatives?

SM: Our next effort is moving toward collecting water and air filters through the Amazon Wish list. Additionally, our organization will be looking for volunteers to put these kits together. Our goal is to give away 1,000 air/water filters in the neighborhoods. Many communities have an issue with lead pipes so these donations will be very helpful. 

Another notable upcoming event is our Earth Day event on Saturday, April 24th. On that day, we’ll be cleaning a park and planting flower beds. Keep an eye out on our website for the exact details.

IM: Are churchgoers part of the volunteer efforts?

SM: These groups are typically part of our block clubs that help out with community events.

IM: Have you received any feedback from anyone about your efforts?

SM: We receive many calls from seniors who need help clearing their walkways and sidewalks. These folks are very appreciative of our efforts.

There have not been any official accolades received from the local government. We have a relationship with Alderman Anthony A. Beale (9th Ward) and Alderman Roderick Sawyer (6th Ward). Many other wards have made similar efforts to help constituents in their areas.

IM: Do you have any heartwarming stories you can share resulting from the snow shoveling efforts?

SM: One senior told me that she was comforted that people care. That is something we hear a lot. There is a relief knowing that people care and are watching. 

IM: It seems that your services are wide in scope. Are there any seniors with disabilities that are helped? Are they prioritized in any way?

SM: We have a priority system when requests come in; Seniors can answer questions related to their conditions. For example, they share if they use a wheelchair, homebound, etc. We also ask their age so that an 80-year-old may be prioritized versus a 55-plus [older person], depending on their circumstances.

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IM: I saw that your website has a graphic about an Equitable Vaccine Initiative encouraging seniors to get vaccinated. Can you tell me more about that program?

SM: Our job has been to make it easy to get the word out and assist folks with signing up for an appointment. When seniors sign up on our website, we have a team call the individual. We then call seniors and try to schedule seniors by using every resource available in the city. We are also helping with transportation to the site.

IM: How many people have contacted you?

SM: We’ve had about 100 people requesting the vaccine, and we have completed about 1,000 calls to check-in of folks to see if they are interested. Our goal is to reach about 2,000 people and have 1,000 of them get vaccinated. As you can imagine, we have more work to do because we want to connect with more people in the community.

IM: How are you managing the constituents who are homebound and cannot visit the COVID sites? How are you helping this segment of the population?

SM: Home visits are not widely available; however, there is a facility that we know who can service a homebound individual.

IM: Awesome. Thanks so much for making the time to speak with me.

Follow Imelda March on Twitter at @hcram1.

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