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Cleaning litter, finding purpose through Pick Me Up

A Pick Me Up crew works to clean litter in South Fayetteville.
Heather Ellzey
A Pick Me Up crew works to clean litter in South Fayetteville.

A crew works to clean litter and debris from an abandoned campsite in south Fayetteville.

The group is part of Pick Me Up, a city-supported program that employs residents who are underserved or experiencing homelessness to clean trails, roads and waterways of debris. Almost every Monday for the past year, people have gathered to sign up for the week’s crew during breakfast at 7 Hills Homeless Center.

Last week, Marcus Lockhart stood in the cold, waiting to place his name in the lottery for the week’s crew. He’s participated in the program before and said he appreciates the opportunity to earn money while maintaining Fayetteville’s scenery.

“I've benefited by number one, maintaining the bike trail and the Town Branch area,” Lockhart said. “That's where we're at. We're usually at the Town Branch– Can you put me on the list?”

He pauses to add his name to a shiny new bucket for this week’s drawing.

“Okay, we were in the Town Branch area,” Lockhart continues. “And that seems to be real problematic with the trash and the displaced and homeless being right there. So when we come through, I've benefited by just keeping the area clean and keeping the local law enforcement off our backs because when the trash starts to pile up, or when things get out of control, that's when law enforcement comes in. And they tend to move us around a lot, and we go from being kind of semi-homeless with some kind of shelter to being transient, looking for another place because no matter where we go, we're trespassing. No matter where we go. So as long as we keep the trash picked up and we keep the area semi-clean, it kind of keeps law enforcement at bay a little bit, and I think that that benefits everybody.”

The program came about as a partnership between the city and Fayetteville’s Genesis Church last fall. Heather Ellzey is an environmental educator for the city and coordinator for Pick Me Up. She said the program has grown rapidly since its inception.

“So this program started as a pilot program last fall,” Ellzey said. “And we were able to clear out over 66,000 pounds of trash, working with homeless residents– or actually residents just in our under-resourced community. Some are sheltered, but most are facing homelessness.”

No matter where we go, we're trespassing. No matter where we go. So as long as we keep the trash picked up and we keep the area semi-clean, it kind of keeps law enforcement at bay a little bit, and I think that that benefits everybody.
Marcus Lockhart, Pick Me Up participant

Over 125 individuals have now participated in Pick Me Up. Crews have cleaned almost 200,000 pounds of debris that once cluttered natural spaces from south Fayetteville all the way to the Northwest Arkansas Mall.

Ellzey said the community has stepped in to support the program. For example, the Fayetteville Police Department donated $25,000 to Pick Me Up from its forfeiture fund so they could buy a dump truck to haul waste from clean-up sites to the landfill. Plus, residents will often stop by work sites to provide refreshments.

Josh Park unloads Pick Me Up's dump truck.
Heather Ellzey
Josh Park unloads Pick Me Up's dump truck.

Pick Me Up has expanded past cleaning solely trash, too.

This summer, the program partnered with Fayetteville’s Free Geek, an internet cafe and e-waster collector.

“So anybody that's getting needs to get of their E-waste out there, definitely look into Free Geek,” Ellzey said. “They do so much for our community in reducing the amount of E-waste that ends up in the landfill. When I reached out to them, they just had so much coming in, and I was wondering, ‘How can the city help Free Geek?’ And then all it hit me. I was like, ‘What an awesome partnership.’”

Pick Me Up crews would go out to Geek’s e-waste warehouse and sort materials for three days a week.

Free Geek increased their output by 98% with the additional help from Pick Me Up workers. In the end, they were able to divert 21,000 pounds of hazardous e-waste, like batteries, computer screens and radios, from the landfill.

Furthermore, Ellzey said Pick Me Up has dedicated itself to battling the threat of invasive species as well:

“So while we were out there picking up litter, we saw an insane amount of the bush honeysuckle privet– all these invasive species,” Ellzey said. “And I was just having some conversations with some individuals at the Beaver Water District and the Beaver Watershed Alliance, and we were just like, ‘Hey, what a cool opportunity for partnership.’”

The Beaver Water District wrote a grant to employ five individuals for Pick Me Up. Now, when the group meets at 7hills to draw names:

“We pull for two teams,” Ellzey said. “We pull for the Pick Me Up litter team that goes out three days a week. Then we're also pulling for the Beaver Watershed Alliance invasive plant team, and they go out two days a week. That's just through the end of December. So we are just piloting this to see what it looks like. And we've already pulled out over an acre of invasive species. Town Branch is looking beautiful. and we're really excited. Now we're just talking about maybe, in the spring, coming back out and starting to plant some natives.”

During last week’s clean-up, the litter crew encountered some bush honeysuckle, an invasive species currently wreaking havoc throughout the Ozarks.

“But it is an invasive species in Arkansas. Like he said, it came from Japan. And I didn't even know until she told me. Yeah, so we're doing that work to remove those.”

That’s Tony Holloway. He’s a supervisor for Pick Me Up.

“So basically, what I do is I grab the team from 7hills day center and get a bunch of guys to work with me,” Holloway said. “And then we come out here, and we do what we're doing now, picking up trash.”

He walks me through the site they’re currently cleaning: an abandoned campsite in south Fayetteville.

“You’re right that this is a trouble area,” Holloway said. “Because it's not like we can just go directly and pick up the trash, we first have to remove that debris, which belongs out here- it’s a part of nature. Dig out all the trash over there. And then put the branches back over there to make it look like nature. So this is like years of trash, branches and more trash. So sometimes we do have difficult errors of having to dig it out. It's not like we just pick it up. We have to bring the rake over here to have what he's doing there. We have to drag it. And the thorns here are a big problem for us here. Because you know a lot of guys get scratched up, and there's a lot of thorns out here, so I encourage the guys to use protective equipment to be safe.”

The crews use orange trash bags and grabbers, as well as personal protective equipment like gloves and rakes:

“You notice everything is orange,” Holloway said. “So that's kind of like our color. If you see orange, that’s the Pick Me Up trash guys.”

A Pick Me Up crew stands near their iconic orange trash bags.
Heather Ellzey
A Pick Me Up crew stands in near their iconic orange trash bags.

Holloway said that he tries to remain conscious they’re cleaning up a natural area:

“We will be here all day,” Holloway said. “In fact, we'll be here all week, probably. We'll come back to work on Wednesday and Thursday. So we'll come back out here and finish up a little bit. Still got a lot of work to do- little small pieces. When we finish this project, you'll see that it looks like nature. We’ll get all the little pieces like the guys are using the shovels and rakes to get all that up. And then we'll come through and manicure it and make it look real nice.”

JT: “See, that's the part that really strikes me is that you said you bring back the sticks and you make it look like, you know, it's just nature.”

That's right,” Holloway said. “Make it look like nature did it because you can see what nature does. It twirls around and grows stuff. So we want that to be able to look like nature did this.”

JT: “Right. So why do y'all do that?”

“Well, we do it because it helps so many aspects of Fayetteville,” Holloway said. “The tourism– It helps the people who want to come in and invest money into Fayetteville when they see that, ‘Hey, this is a nice little clean city.’

JT: “I can tell that you take a lot of pride in your community.”

“I do,” Holloway said. “I take pride in it. I have a lot of pride. I do, I do. I take pride in even the drinking water. You know this water is the water that eventually we will be drinking after the Beaver Water District gets doing their thing. So, why can't we just try to clean up as much as we can before it gets to those guys?”

Josh Park is director of worship at Genesis Church & Pick Me Up coordinator. He and Ellzey hosted a presentation for Fayetteville’s Environmental Action Committee last month to update the group on how the Pick Me Up program has progressed.

He said that working with the crews has allowed him to observe the impact of the Pick Me Up program firsthand.

“When you see a pile of trash, when you see those types of things, when you see a camp, what you're seeing there is really an expression of their brokenness and their trauma, and really, ultimately, it is a loss of dignity for those people,” Park said. “And so they have just come to the place in their journey where they're fine living in this in this broken environment. And what we've had the opportunity to do because of the relationship we have with the city and with the trash and recycling department is that we have the opportunity to take people who have traditionally been the problem in their area, and we've given them the opportunity and shown them that they can be an integral part of the solution.”

Park said people who previously worked with Pick Me Up will often approach him on days when they're not working to request a trash bag to clean up litter in their free time.

“These are the people you see panhandling on the corner,” Park said. “These are the people you see sitting on the sidewalk. These are the people that you see walking around, pushing shopping carts and things like that. And when they're given the opportunity to be a part of the solution, the amount that they accomplish and the fervor with which they accomplish it is really mind-blowing. Because what's happening is we're picking up large amounts of litter and really beautifying the city in a great way. But also, what's happening is that the people who are involved in our program, begin to change their perspective on the environment that they live in.”

Ellzey, Holloway and Park smile together during a clean-up.
Heather Ellzey
Ellzey, Holloway and Park smile together during a clean-up.

The Fayetteville City Council voted on the 2024 budget on Nov. 21, approving Pick Me Up’s funding so the program can continue throughout next year.

More information on7hills Homeless Center, Genesis Church, Beaver Watershed Alliance, Free Geek and Fayetteville’s Environmental Inititiatives.

Corrected: December 19, 2023 at 3:58 PM CST
A previous version stated that Pick Me Up crews cleaned more than half a ton of litter. At the time of publication, the program had removed 100 tons of debris.
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Jack Travis is a reporter for <i>Ozarks at Large</i>.<br/>
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