While Jennifer Richardson was sitting in her car at an intersection, waiting for the stoplight to turn green, she glanced over at the median and found a horrifying sight. “The weeds were taller than me, and there was so much trash,” recalls Richardson, an agent with Latter & Blum in Baton Rouge, La. Discarded bottles, plastic wrappers, beer cans and shopping bags littered the median, and Richardson decided right then and there to do something about the eyesore.
On that day two and a half years ago, Richardson went home and posted an open invitation to her neighbors on Facebook and NextDoor to join her in cleaning up the median. “I said I would be at that intersection at 6:30 in the morning that upcoming Saturday, and whoever wanted to join me was welcome to,” Richardson recalls.
A lifelong Baton Rouge resident, Richardson says that over the last four decades, the city has been in decline as crime, litter and homelessness increased. “This city is so beautiful. I know that, and the people who have lived here a long time know that. I think they just got used to seeing it dirty and littered,” she adds.
Not knowing whether anyone would join her but determined to clean up the city, Richardson showed up at the intersection by herself and went to work. Curious passersby rolled down their car windows and shouted out to her, asking what she was doing. Some mistook the 5-foot, 63-year-old Richardson for a potential wanderer from a nearby nursing home. “Every time someone would ask me what I was doing, I would just shout back, ‘I’m cleaning up this filthy city!’” Richardson says.
People would honk in delight or give her a thumbs-up. Eventually, a man in a large truck drove by, asking the same question. Richardson gave her usual response. “And he yelled back to me, ‘Well, you can’t do it with those housewife tools! Give me a minute and I’ll be back,’” Richardson explains.
By the time the man returned with professional tools—blowers, a blade edger, bags and more—there were already 10 other volunteers who had joined Richardson to pick up trash and cut down the weeds. Richardson took before and after photos of the median and posted them on Facebook that night. The photos went viral, and “people from all over started asking how they could help,” she says. And what began as a one-time cleanup of one intersection turned into a daily operation with more than 100 volunteers working all over the city.
Richardson started a Facebook page called Keep Tiger Town Beautiful to help organize and engage volunteers. To date, it has about 4,800 members. Each morning, a group of volunteers gather at an appointed location to pick up litter. On Saturdays, they meet for longer. Keep Tiger Town Beautiful now operates as a full-blown nonprofit dedicated to cleaning up the city in every way it can. “We’re turning blight into beauty every day in our city,” Richardson says.
She notes that all the equipment volunteers use, including heavy duty trash bags, storage units and vehicles for hauling trash, have been donated by either a local resident or company. Not a single volunteer has had to cover any cleanup expenses out of pocket, and taxpayers aren’t on the hook for their efforts either. To date, the organization has filled and disposed of 11,000 contractor bags—42-gallon trash bags designed for construction sites. She estimates the cost of the bags they’ve used so far to be $13,000 to $15,000. “When we’re picking up litter, we find money, and the volunteers put it in a pot for more bags,” Richardson explains. “I’ve had bags dropped off on my doorstep. Companies around town have donated bags. Every single time we need something, someone steps up.”
Richardson says that when she went to the city’s public works department to ask that trash cans be placed around the city, she was told the department had neither the manpower nor the resources to purchase and place the cans. Once again, Richardson went to Facebook for help. An oncology group provided her with eight trash cans, and a beverage company offered 40. Then, a local car wash pledged to provide an unlimited number of garbage cans for as long as Richardson’s group needed them. “So, we loaded up our vehicles and started putting garbage cans all over the city—and they’re working,” Richardson says.
Even panhandlers, curious about what Richardson was doing, started helping place the cans once she explained her efforts. “It gives them a purpose and something to be proud of. They’re helping out, too,” she says.
One of the things that makes Keep Tiger Town Beautiful so successful, aside from willing volunteers who show up rain or shine, is a sense of pride in a job well done, Richardson says. “We’re changing our city.”
But it’s more than that: Each time volunteers get together to pick up litter, clean up an abandoned homeless camp or clear the city’s walls and buildings of graffiti, the effort instills a feeling of connection and camaraderie in a world that’s oftentimes divisive and difficult. “We don’t care who you are, where you come from, what creed or nationality or sexual orientation or whatever it might be that’s usually used to divide us,” Richardson says. “We don’t care if you can only volunteer once—we’re happy to have you. We don’t care if you can volunteer today and then don’t come back for a year—we’re so excited to see you again.”
Life is full of obligations, Richardson says, and she doesn’t want people’s involvement in Keep Tiger Town Beautiful to be another one. “Life is hard enough. I want this to be for us. It’s for Baton Rouge.”