Changing Community Service

Last Friday was a little bit different than most Fridays on "Crew 1" - Bronx Community Solutions' own community service crew. On any typical day, we work with 10-20 clients. Our Coordinator of Community service manages multiple projects (along with two Crew Supervisors and the use of a passenger van and clean-up supplies): painting over graffiti in partnership with the NYPD, Community Boards, Business Improvement Districts, and local residents; cleaning up around the 161st Street area near the Criminal Court; sorting donated supplies at Worldvision's Bronx Storehouse; or working closely with the Department of Sanitation to address high priority conditions like step streets.

This day we would be helping out Catholic Charities with a major renovation of their Bronx Thriftstore. We were partnering with Rebuilding Together NYC to do a big volunteer day at their temporary location. Rebuilding Together is helping Catholic Charities completely renovate their permanent location in an important commercial area in the Bronx known as "The Hub." When the construction is completed, store designers from Macy's will lay out the retail space, and there will be conference and office space for community meetings, job training, and case managers. When Matt Lang, from Rebuilding Together, describes the project he says: "The new store will be really nice. Just because you don't have a lot of money, doesn't mean you shouldn't be able to shop in a nice environment."

During our intake process, we picked about 20-30 clients, after explaining what the project would be and giving them the option to sign up for a special project instead of our regular community service options. Our highly experienced intake staff made sure to pick clients with a good attitude who wanted to do something positive for their community service, and who were functional, domiciled and not facing serious health, substance abuse, mental health or anger management issues.

Even though our client's were performing mandatory community service, they were treated like regular volunteers, Bronx residents and community members. We started the day by explaining the goals of the project, signing in, and handing out tee-shirts. Once we began, everyone got involved and worked hard.

We were sorting and moving boxes, taking them out to the street and loading them into trucks. Everyone pitched in - many people helped organize and working together in groups got a lot done quickly and efficiently. I was especially happy to observe that one young man I thought might give us an attitude problem positioned himself right in the middle of the job in an organizing everything that was being loaded onto the truck. After we all shared pizza and soda for lunch, we finished up the work (and made one more visit the next day to finish up). Some of our clients requested information about other ways to get involved volunteering with Rebuilding Together or Catholic Charities.

I was happy to deliver lots of valuable labor to a community-based organization that's doing valuable work in the Bronx, and I was also happy to deliver a great, meaningful day of community service to our clients.


Anonymous said…
This is a great story. I often wonder if more could be done to encourage greater voluntarism through efforts like this beyond the completion of a mandate.

Chris Watler
Julius Lang said…
What a great story Ben. To me, this kind of project is the gold standard for community service - very meaningful work;non-offenders pitching in side by side with court-mandated workers; important work that promotes a larger social goal that people can understand and feel proud of; and general encouragement of volunteerism (as Chris W points out). Kudos to BCS for continuing to blaze new trails!
-Julius Lang
Congratulations to Benjamin and the Bronx team! The Rebuilding Together/Catholic Charities sounds like a wonderful project. The positive response from many of the defendants who worked on the project (and their interest to continue volunteering) really gets at one of the core values of community court-community service: not only having people pay back the community for their quality of life crime, but helping them to reconnect with and feel like a contributing member of the neighborhood (which will hopefully result in less quality of life violations in the future).

Over the years, in Hartford, we have done dozens and dozens similar "special" community service projects (in addition to our usual litter details). Those projects have included:

1. We had over 150 new law students at the UConn School of Law join with our defendant crews to perform a major clean up at a Hartford park (the law students even took it upon themselves to wade into the lakes/ponds to retrieve tires and branches)...they also found a chopped up car, refrigerator, and a phone box in the woods...all were removed.
They also worked at the adjoining non profit Ebony Horse Women Equestrian Center, cleaning up the stalls (with Judge Cofield and the Dean of the Law School) and working with the horses.

2. participation in numerous neighborhood arranged clean-up efforts (with residents/business owners, & other community leaders).

3. we had a contingent of 30 college student/defendant paint the interior of a local Boys and Girls Club

4. we have had education majors perform tutoring at local after school programs.

5. perform set up and distribute materials and one of the local community centers in celebration of national community health center week.

6. work with other volunteers at the Hartford Marathon helping to sign in runners, provide them with their marathon numbers, set up snow fencing at the start/finish area (we got a lot of positive feedback from our crews on this project).

7. we are going to start working with Hartford's Riverfront Recapture program to help maintain a community walking trail on a recently renovated.

While I can't undervalue our routine clean up projects throughout Hartford, being able to have our defendant work crews perform their community service on a special project has only resulted in positive outcomes for the defendants and the programs we have worked with.