Romeo Mendoza, equipped with his reflective yellow vest and blue work gloves, spent one recent morning filling up a garbage bag with discarded food wrappers, tossed-away cigarette butts, and any other trash he could find.
The soon-to-be senior at New Brunswick High School and 14 other members of the city’s newly created Teen Litter Patrol had descended on the corner of Suydam Street and Throop Avenue with their claw-like grabber tools and a goal to make the city a little cleaner – one crushed coffee cup or wayward COVID mask at a time.
“I’m glad to be doing something to help the community,” Mendoza said. “I hate walking around and seeing garbage on the streets. It’s disgusting. It’s gross. The City of New Brunswick is a really nice place, so let’s keep it clean.”
Filled with civic pride and youthful enthusiasm, they will be hitting several areas of the city through Aug. 5. As they literally sweep through the city, they will be earning $13 an hour through this program through the city’s Department of Public Works. Another group of students, who are working to clean and maintain the city’s parks, are earning up to $17 an hour.
Julian Nicholas, who is going to be a junior at the high school in September, said he wrote a letter several months ago to Mayor Jim Cahill’s office. In it, he suggested it would be a win for everyone if the city paid students to form a litter patrol.
Nicholas said he was excited to receive a letter letting him know the plan was in the works. Eventually, he was contacted to see if he was interested in interviewing for one of the positions.
“When I was with my dad, I was walking my dog and I saw a bunch of trash and broken glass,” he said. “I felt bad for the animals who have to endure that and I didn’t want my dog to step on any glass. I just care about my city. I said, ‘You know what? We need to have kids get jobs, have them be paid, basically get working experience.’”
The Teen Litter Patrol has already filled countless bags with trash since they hit the streets on June 29. They’ve come across all sorts of trash, from a smashed coconut to an oscillating fan with weeds growing through its spokes.
Aluminum cans, plastic bottles, and miscellaneous metal objects such as car parts are collected separately.
Erin Maguire, New Brunswick’s Recycling Coordinator, said she has created an educational component to the program that has included rides in a DPW trash truck and lessons about how to reuse, reduce and recycle trash. She said it’s an attempt to give students a real-world view of trash and understand that, as she puts it, “You don’t just put garbage on a curb and it magically disappears.”
Through it all, Maguire said the students have remained passionate about helping clean the city.
“It’s been hot, it’s been humid, but they want to give back to the community,” she said. “That was the resounding message in their interviews and I’ve seen it.”
Emily Castro, a recent New Brunswick High School grad who will be heading to Middlesex College in September, said she’s learned to pack some water and wear a hat.
“Being that it's summer, it gets a little hotter, especially in the morning,” she said. “That doesn’t really help morale sometimes, but we get the job done.”
Story and Photo by: Chuck O'Donnell