Tomorrow there will be more of us
An interview with Brad Buitenhuys
about the Lowell Litter Krewe
By Babz Clough
Tell me about yourself.
I grew up not far from Lowell, and realized I could graduate high school a semester early, but I needed to have a plan. I applied for AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) for 10 months of national service. While waiting to join, I worked with a carpenter in Reading and he put me in the basement of an old Victorian house. He told me to pull out all the concrete and then dig out six inches of dirt, and then they were going to repour the concrete. It took me months but that was the beginning of my construction experience.
Joining AmeriCorps accelerated the construction thing. By the end of 10 months, I had worked on 100 homes and built playgrounds mostly in the Gulf Coast area. Volunteering became something that made me happier than anything. I joined AmeriCorps to travel and to try and find a home but I didn’t know where it was going to be. I traveled—New Orleans, Sacramento, Phoenix, Biloxi and a few other places along the way and the came home and enrolled at U Mass Lowell. Since then I’ve been a construction manager, surveyor, civil engineer and a carpenter. Lowell’s been home for 13 years and I don’t see that changing soon.
Having been here this long, why now for the Lowell Litter Krewe?
The idea came from the Lowell Canalwaters Cleaners. I’d been volunteering with them pretty regularly as they clean waterways throughout the city. I loved doing it and I loved hanging out with them. But I knew there had to be more people interested in volunteering and I wanted to share the passion and love that I have for it.
So I just thought: “I’ll add one more event each month.” Every two weeks seemed doable, and everyone would come clean up on one other Saturday. But way more people showed up and we did so much more than I thought, and everyone said “What are we doing tomorrow?”
And that’s how it started.
How did you initiate the group?
I started with Facebook. On EforAll Merrimack Valley there was a post on a Lowell Live Feed Forum about the little triangle of grass behind a local business. One person posted, “It looks terrible, I need help, it’s too much for me to do alone.” So we set up a meeting and posted it on Facebook. 35 people showed up. We cleaned there, and then down to the Connector, some of the backroads and neighborhoods, and just kept going. We had a blast and it looked so much better. And we had a giant pile of trash.
It’s more fun picking up trash with other people—I don’t like to pick up trash alone. Turns out there are lots of people who have more fun with other people—there are lots of people who are picking up trash on their own. It helped that there were some elected officials at the very first clean up so we received a lot of support from the city.
Do you think part of the interest was your timing because you started in March 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, and people wanted to just get outside?
Yes, we did one event in the fall of 2020. Then we started every Saturday beginning on March 13, 2021. We did almost every Saturday in 2021 until it got so cold it was miserable. We tried in November, an hour at the YMCA, getting rained on, almost freezing and yet 20 people showed up. We had 70 events the first year. We were coming out of the pandemic, coming out of winter, people wanted an opportunity to rekindle community, our city didn’t look good.
Do you ever find yourself getting discouraged when you have to clean the same area repeatedly? Or are you seeing less to clean up?
I have gotten better about not taking it personally, but I also believe it’s happening less and less. There are always places that don’t keep themselves as clean as you’d like. That little triangle we did: took all day the first time. In the summer, 3 people spent 30 minutes, and it took me 15 minutes in the fall. Now I could do it in 5 minutes. If we keep somewhere clean, it stays clean for longer. It’s 100% the broken window effect. The neighbors are taking the hint and fewer people are throwing things on the ground.
How do you get connected with other organizations?
People reach out to us. Hosting huge, fun events that people keep coming back. People that are in networks of other groups.
So attraction rather than promotion?
Yes, with community groups, nobody should be forced to volunteer. There are 600 devoted volunteers who have come out and picked up trash. That’s 600 unique volunteers. We keep track of people who come to the events, and who’s a new volunteer. We’ve over 1000 followers on FB and similar on Instagram.
There are two phrases you use which always make me smile. Tomorrow there will be more of us is emblazoned on the vests and seems a self-fulfilling prophecy, but what about the second one.
We can have nice things: It’s the broken window effect. What’s under all this trash? That’s why I got the giant speakers for the truck, so people notice us. You can’t have nice things if you’re going to break them. I love this city and I want people to love it as much as me.
What’s the draw of Lowell for you?
Big food guy. Love being able to eat all the great nationalities and cultures from around the world. I’m happier out here in my cut-off shirt and shorts with holes in them. I’d rather be able to go without shoes but can’t do that. In college, I lived in Fox Tower. I walked across the front lawn in fresh snow in my bare feet one winter. And then it iced and stayed cold and frozen. You could see my frozen foot prints for weeks. Everyone knew it was me.
Where do you maybe see Lowell Litter Krewe going in the future?
Our mission is to support volunteer opportunities and create more volunteers. Our focus is on redevelopment of underutilized open space. We want to find willing investors into public land so we can develop our parks, make them more attractive and a place where people are safe and want to spend their time.
People complain “the kids aren’t going outside enough.” If we can find some inspirational, connective aspects for our public spaces and parks, bolster our playgrounds, and enhance our river walks, we all benefit. The city is making huge strides in these areas, but as a separate group, we can take on passion projects rather than “have to” projects.
We can make little wonderlands in all our neighborhoods.
Because the city has to focus on the big projects, there just isn’t the support for all the little projects. But kids live all over the city, and every kid wants to play on a cool playground.
Is there a plan to adopt a neighborhood program or adopt a park program?
Routine maintenance is something we try to avoid. Adoption and stewardship are critical for the long-term success of the city. We offer to come in and do the first round of cleaning, but then we hope people will just adopt streets and parks. Look at Vanna Howard’s Adopt a Street program downtown – she has 35 volunteers on all of our streets downtown. We want to replicate that in other neighborhoods. We’re trying to source funding so anyone who wants to adopt a street in another neighborhood can get a picker and bucket. It shouldn’t cost money to volunteer.
What do you want people to know who’ve never heard of LLK to know?
The spelling of Krewe is an homage to the second line Indians of Mardi Gras. The krewes are Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. We try to inspire our little trash band. It’s easy exercise and people can come out and meet neighbors who care about their city. There’s no category that we all fit in, other than that we care about this place. It’s not young/old, liberal/conservative, rich/poor. We just want there not to be trash on the ground.
We’re super excited to be starting our work with significant funding from the state delegation via the ARPA fund on the Centralville River Path. Our first major construction project will be at Gold Star Park. Thanks to the community outreach by DIY Lowell, part of Coalition for a Better Acre, we will be doing as much as we can to construct the collective vision of the community for this place. This is not just one person’s dream, but a community’s. We envision grading the trailhead to ADA so it stops eroding every year and it’s safe for people to use. We want to make the park more open and welcoming with a better view to the river so people feel safe. We’re going to add a pergola and some seating and start connecting the other side of VFW to the river.
Who else do you want to give a shoutout to?
Coalition for a Better Acre, Lowell Canalwaters Cleaners, Lowell Dept. Public Works, EforAll Merrimack Valley, and of course, the Lowell Litter Krewe Board: Karonika Pholy, Ami Hughes, Adam Roscoe, Tara Hong
How can someone get more info?
If you know an area that needs a good cleaning, give us a shout!
Brad Buitenhuys, 617-201-9916
Litter Krewe firstname.lastname@example.org
And follow us on Facebook and Instagram.
- 112,600 pounds of trash
- 4,174 hours
- 71 events
- 48,600 pounds of trash
- 1,426 volunteer hours
- 43 events – and it’s not yet summer!