When Stephen Mathes arrived at one of Schenectady’s “hidden gems” Saturday morning, he encountered bits of his old life.
The retired Schenectady County senior probation officer first came across a group of kids doing community service at Vale Park as part of their release under supervision. Then he happened upon a former parolee of his, a man now in recovery who walks through the park just off of Nott Terrace practically every day — cleaning up.
“He’s a guy that just wants to make a contribution,” said Mathes, who was at Vale Park on Saturday as part of Schenectady Inner City Ministry’s Day of Service. “So if I can give my time, give my help contributing to the pickup and the cleanup, I should.”
But the more than 125 volunteers who visited about a dozen sites across the city were mostly made up of SICM staff and volunteers from various congregations and community organizations. So it was a heartening sight for Mathes to see so many different people helping out Schenectady.
Volunteers helped clean and beautify sites around the city including Jerry Burrell Park, the Norwood Avenue tennis courts, Hamilton Hill Arts Center, Schenectady Damien Center and SICM’s emergency food pantry.
The citywide cleanup gave volunteers pride in their community, most agreed.
“I think what’s happening now is that like in every city across the nation, we’re finding these pearls and jewels right in our backyard,” said Mathes. “And we have to continue to nourish and develop these jewels that we took for granted. And Vale Cemetery is a jewel.”
But it didn’t really look like one in the early hours of Saturday.
“When we got here to the park, you couldn’t even see the road,” said Katie Van Meter, a community service coordinator with YouthBuild Schenectady AmeriCorps. “It was covered in leaves and sticks and bottles, lots of bottles. So our students basically just cleared out this road and the sides of the park and went up into the hills. They just got dirty.”
Nearly 20 AmeriCorps volunteers based out of Schenectady were at the park on Saturday. Van Meter said she’s heard personally from many of the volunteers who said it makes them feel good to rebuild their own community.
The youngest volunteer at the park on Saturday was 1-year-old Avianna Thomas. Her father, Antonio Thomas, said the youngster was moving sticks and even raking leaves, and she was yawning just after 11 a.m.
“I think it’s cool to see so many different people from different groups that have the same clothes that we do,” said Thomas, 22, a volunteer with YouthBuild. “Because that’s what we do, that’s what we’re about. Not to mention this is happening all over Schenectady, it’s not just one site. I think everybody here did a good job showing they care about their environment.”
It was a hot, sunny morning at Vale Park, and despite showing up in jeans and a nice blouse, Ja’net Maisonette was still willing to get dirty: picking up garbage, branches and raking.
“I have a kid, so I would rather it be more clean,” she said, adding that she found disturbing garbage in the park, including empty drug bags.
Several blocks on the other side of State Street were more volunteers from local congregations clearing trash from Jerry Burrell Park. The park is frequented by many children in the Hamilton Hill neighborhood, making it an ideal site for cleanup work, said volunteers.
Dozens of bags full of dry brush, garbage and other litter sat near the curb on Schenectady Street. Jonai Trumpler had even found broken glass in the park, where a man was pushing a young girl on a swing and bare-chested teen boys were sweating over a game of one-on-one basketball.
“Our mission is just to clean up the park and make it more friendly for the kids,” said Trumpler, 37, of Schenectady. “We’re taking care of all the garbage, raking up the leaves, trimming the bushes. I think it’s great and the park looks a lot better than when we started.”
Trumpler and her mother, Karen Brown, are members of Schenectady’s Eastern Parkway United Methodist Church, one of nearly 60 congregations with the Inner City Ministry.
SICM has always been focused on providing service, said cleanup coordinator Cheryl Gerstler, so the idea of a day of service seemed only natural. This year’s event was the second-ever.
“It makes the park a better place for kids to play,” said Gerstler. “And it really makes you feel good to have a chance to reach out and help other people. I love this day and I was looking forward to it for a long time.”