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Community Cleanup champions placemaking, neighborhood love, inclusive growth

In early spring 2008, Brian and Erica VanEe were on a walk in their neighborhood and decided to get some friends together for a little pick up of the area and some fun together afterward. Now, the WestSide Community Cleanup has grown to a diverse event with over 300 participants.

WestSide Community Cleanup sponsors, supporters and recruitment partners

Able Manufacturing


Alliance Beverage



Black Heron


Bridge Street House of Prayer

Broadway Bar

Catalyst Partners

Christopher Wilson Photography

Chuck Gallagher

City of Grand Rapids


Consious Collective

Crossroads Bible Church

Dairy Queen



El Granero

Essence Restaraunt Group

Experience GR

Fox 17 News

Franks Meats


GFB - gluten free bars

Gold Avenue Church

Grand Rapids Community Foundation

Grand Rapids Fire Department

Grand Rapids Police Department

Grand Valley State University

Harmony Brewing

Harrison Park Elementary

Holiday Bar

Icon Sign

Image Gallery

Jets Pizza

John Ball Area Neighbors (JBAN)

Kent School Services Network

Keystone Community Church

Kitchen 67

Long Road Distillery



Mike & Jamie Lamonoco



Monica Sparks Show

Oasis of Hope



Rapid Growth Media

Riverhouse Condominiums

Rockford Construction

600 Douglas

616 Development


Sibley Elementary

Southland Auto Wash

Steepletown Neighborhood Services

Stocking Elementary


Tacos El Cunado

The Other Way Ministries

Tim Horton

Union High School

Union Square Condominiums

United Commercial Services



West Grand Neighborhood Organization (WGNO)

Westown Collaborative

Westside Fitness

Westside Garage

Westsider Cafe

Westwood Middle



/Courtesy of Brian and Erica VanEe

Some of the crowd at the 2015 Cleanup on May 2

Some of the crowd at the 2015 Cleanup on May 2 /Christopher John Wilson

Placemaking and neighborhood improvement can take many innovative forms- from City governments creating improvements to large development companies creating gathering spaces in a neighborhood... to neighbors deciding to pick up a little trash. Though seemingly different impacts on the surface, individuals can create a huge impact on their own neighborhoods , building community while making a better place to live, work and play.

Take Erica and Brian VanEe, for example. What started with a walk in their neighborhood in 2008 when they were dating, noticing how trash collects in the snow piles over the cold winter months, turned into a placemaking action: a clean-up day with a few friends.

That simple way of taking ownership of their own responsibility in their neighborhood's beauty has now grown into last Saturday's WestSide Community Cleanup (WCC), gathering well over 300 participants who filled up two 30 yard dumpsters with the trash they collected on that one morning.

"[In 2008] we decided to round up a few of our friends in Union Square, where we both lived, and organize a little clean up in our neighborhood that we loved so much, but most other people were not paying much attention to back then," says Erica VanEe. "We had about 25 people show up that first year and we were thrilled. We always made it fun from the beginning by involving community partners, having a trash treasure hunt and finishing up the day with a lunch, prizes and speakers at Broadway Bar. The next year we expanded to Riverhouse and made lifelong friends. On our third year we had 50 people and then 75. By our fifth year we had 100 neighbors join us and couldn't even fit into the Broadway Bar anymore. And then last year, we had 200 people show up who picked up 10,000 pounds of trash in one morning!"

This year, the event found over 300 people, from eight months to 80 years old, and more diversity than ever before. The VanEes were also able to reach another milestone goal in 2015: making sure that everything was bilingual. 

"We were intentional about our reach to our Latino and African-American communities," explains VanEe. "In addition to marketing the opportunity in both English and Spanish, we had Spanish-speaking volunteers available at registration, provided way finding signage and written safety instructions in English and Spanish, and welcomed volunteers in English and Spanish."

Diversity didn't stop at language, though.

"We had more organizations represented and families engaged than ever before. Parent and child, brother and sister, life partners gay, straight, black, white, brown, English-speaking, Spanish-speaking, tradesmen/women, CEO's, phd's, high school dropouts- they were all there. Everyone was working side-by-side for a shared vision," says VanEe. "People repeatedly commented about how they felt so welcome and that they belonged here and happy to be giving back and participating in making our community stronger. It was truly a 'mission accomplished' moment in our lives, and a model for how to be committed to intentional and radical inclusion for all as we effectively design and implement high impact experiences."

In preparation for the event and to be able to thank the volunteering neighbors, $25,000 in sponsorships and support was collected from more than 50 local businesses. Both neighborhood organizations, all three business associations, all the condo associations, several of the churches and nonprofits and all the Westside schools were represented.

"We gave a lot of love to our volunteers with lunch after the cleanup and prizes of gift certificates to local businesses. We also provided donations to local organizations working with our families back to our community. The value of our volunteer hours would easily calculate to another $25,000 value if you count everyone's time," says VanEe. "All in all one it was of the very best days I've ever had on the WestSide."

Not every decision to make a neighborhood more beautiful turns into such a huge event, of course. Planning, innovative action and inspiration are required to build scale. So how did Brian and Erica VanEe mobilize their community so significantly? First, they account a lot of the success to their partners, like Kent School Services Network (KSSN), which has a community school liaison and every school. KSSN and local churches recruited most of the families that came, says VanEe.

"We've always had goals for the event: how many volunteers we could engage in the clean up, how many businesses would support us through sponsorships and gift certificates for thank you prizes, how many pounds of trash we could collect, how much the in-kind contribution of our volunteers hours was worth," says VanEe. "But more than that our goal was to create community. Our vision was to bridge the geographic and cultural divides within our neighborhood, and bring people together for a purpose greater than themselves. Our dream was for everyone to have a shared vision that the WestSide was a viable place to live, work, play and invest. We started this at a time when people weren't paying much attention or taking risks to invest because the financial, employment and housing markets had just collapsed, and so many people were struggling to hold on, no different than so many of our neighbors, which was a big part of the point we were trying to make."

VanEe says it all comes down to creating relationships with neighbors.

"This is our ultimate goal: for neighbors to create trusting, loving relationships with their neighbors, whether they have lived here for three weeks or 30 years," she explains. "This is what builds community: engaging, mobilizing and investing our hearts and minds with others towards a purpose greater than our individual differences."

VanEe says that her husband's engineering and planning skills helped create the scale that was able to be grown through the years of developing the WestSide Community Cleanup. But she also asserts there's nothing special about what she and her husband Brian VanEe were able to accomplish in their neighborhood. She fully believes that any of her neighbors can be valuable placemakers, investing in their community.

This is the last year that Brian and Erica VanEe will be heading up the efforts of the WCC. VanEe says the initiative is ready for the next generation of leaders. They will be working with community partners to hand it off to a cross-section collaborative planning team so that others can take it to the next level, she says.

"This clean up is not about us," she says. "It's about realizing anyone can have an idea or a vision to make their neighborhood stronger and we hope the WCC will be a small example of what everyone can do, when they believe in the beauty of their dreams and have the support around them to go after them. It doesn't have to be a clean up. It could be anything-a book drive or a visiting neighbor program or an initiative that support healthier habits. Whatever. The point is, notice what needs to be done, and don't be afraid to get out there and try. And perhaps most important, 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world, indeed it's the only thing that ever has,' as Margaret Mead said. Our greatest joy is how many people and organizations joined this one vision, and helped to change our world and our neighborhood, for the better!"

Disclosure: The author is friends with- and a big fan of- both the VanEe's and neighborhood placemaking actions.

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