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At a glance
Great American Cleanup, May 18
•Volunteers are asked to register by April 15
•Register online at or by calling 311
Icola Lawson, Julie Miller and Dede Hire volunteer during last year’s Great American Cleanup. The city expects 5,000 volunteers this year.

City, volunteers ready for annual cleanup day

– You wouldn’t think that picking up your neighbor’s trash would draw you closer, but officials say two decades of seeing it in action has proved that dirt can be the tie that binds.

City employees are getting ready for the Great American Cleanup, an annual event that started as the “bag-a-thon” in the early 1990s with about 1,500 volunteers that has grown exponentially to the point that a map with shaded areas showing where crews will be working appears to have most of the city covered.

Officials expect about 5,000 volunteers for the May 18 event; last year, more than 200 groups picked up more than 94 tons of trash and debris.

“It really opens people’s eyes and educates them about how much litter is out there,” said Matt Gratz, city director of solid waste. “You’d be surprised what people throw away.”

You might also be surprised that picking up trash in an area somehow makes people love it more.

Kira Blacketor, program manager in the city’s solid waste department, said that after people clean an area, they begin to take personal ownership in it. That’s true whether it’s employees cleaning the neighborhood around their business or a group assigned to a random site in the city. Often, officials said, after a group works in one area, they ask for the same spot year after year.

Sometimes, they do it because they’ve formed relationships.

Last year, Blacketor said, Catherine Kasper Place got a large group of Burmese immigrants together to build a community garden at their apartment complex, but she needed more volunteers. Emmanuel Community Church stepped in to help, and the experience meant so much to everyone involved, they’re doing it again this year.

“It’s a great way to involve youth and kids in the community, to give back to the community as a family,” Blacketor said. “People want to help, but they need someone to spearhead it up. Once someone’s willing to be a leader, people will come out and be happy to volunteer.”

That’s the reason so many volunteers do so much, city officials said – not because of anything incredible the city has done, but because it’s given people an easy way to make a difference.

The hot dogs help, too.

After the work is done, the city throws a party for the volunteers, feting them from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Headwaters Park with lunch, a band, kids games and giveaways. Work gloves, trash bags, food and drinks are donated by businesses.

The event is May 18, but officials want volunteers to register by April 15 so they know how many supplies to order. Register online at or by calling 311. If you or your group has a place in mind to work, that can be accommodated; otherwise officials will assign you a place.

Blacketor said the volunteer spirit in Fort Wayne is alive and well.

“Not every community draws that many volunteers every year,” she said. “I think the city of Fort Wayne is getting noticed because of the amount of volunteers we have.”