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Community service program helps wipe slate clean

Photo: Chris Salata/The Chicago Maroon
Edward C. Young, a five month veteran of Cleanslate, works underneath the East 53rd Street and South Lake Park Avenue overpass.

Janet Thompson is not a bad mother. Her past would make some people think otherwise.

At the corner of East 48th Street and South Cottage Grove Avenue in a modest office building that neighbors a local barbershop, the middle-aged resident of the South Side’s Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood addresses a group of about 50 of her coworkers and talks candidly about the reason she stands before them.

“When I was 35 years old, I had two daughters,” Thompson says. “Then my sister introduced me to drugs.”

It is 7 a.m. on a Monday at the Hyde Park offices of Cleanslate, a nonprofit Chicago corporation that aims to beautify neighborhoods through outdoor cleaning efforts while spreading a message of environmental responsibility. It is also where job-seekers with troubled or difficult pasts, including Thompson and dozens of others who share similar tales of drugs or crime, have turned to for assistance in developing the work skills necessary to eventually secure permanent employment.

Cleanslate, which already operates in four Chicago neighborhoods, expanded its operations into Hyde Park last Monday, May 14, with 34 program participants tending to an area along East 53rd Street bounded by South Lake Park and South Kimbark avenues.

An offshoot of the Cara Program—a local organization that works to help homeless, at-risk, and recently incarcerated individuals find and maintain quality jobs—the Cleanslate internship program was established in 2005 to provide “a bridge to permanent employment” for what its mission statement defines as the Cara Program’s “difficult to place” participants. About a third of Cara Program participants have a criminal record, and prior substance abuse is one of the more common reasons people like Thompson find themselves in the more rigorous Cleanslate program.

“I was a good mother, but I failed,” Thompson tells the group, referring to the downward spiral her life took as a result of her past drug addiction. She shares her story as part of a motivation session that begins each workday, and input from the rest of the group is a critical component of the personal rebuilding process. “I’m trying to control my anger management,” Thompson says. “Trying?” the rest of the group shouts instantly, causing Thompson to jump back in surprise. “I did control my anger management,” Thompson says, correcting herself. “I’m here to stay.”

Thompson, cheered on by vigorous applause, runs around the circle and gives everyone an enthusiastic high five before taking her seat. A Cleanslate group leader yells out, “Who’s got an inspiration this morning?” Another participant takes the floor and shares her story.

The message behind these intense, energized, almost cathartic group activities is simple, says Cleanslate Managing Director John Rush. It is all about providing participants with the motivation they need to seek a permanent change in their lives. “The positive side is seeing individuals who’ve needed an opportunity…to get the soft-skills training they need to secure a job,” Rush said. With average job placement for program graduates yielding wages of $10.50 an hour and a 70-percent job retention rate, Rush said the organization produces serious change for those involved. Last year, Cleanslate placed 175 participants into employment, and judging by its first-quarter statistics, Rush said the group is well on its way to fulfilling its goal of placing 235 participants by the end of this year.

Unfortunately, he said, there are a few who choose not to follow through with the group’s stated mission, eventually leaving the program. “To disconnect yourself from that larger network that’s been given to you, it’s very disheartening,” he said.

But for the remainder of those individuals committed to positive change, the training is also a source of pride.

“We beautify the community, it’s a positive thing,” says Edward C. Young, a 30-year-old father of four who’s been engaged for two years. Wearing the program’s distinct neon green windbreaker jacket and a pair of work gloves, Young recalls the fulfilling experiences that have comprised his seven months in both the Cara and Cleanslate programs. “People look at what we do and compliment us,” he says, adding that he gets a good feeling when he sees people in the neighborhood recycling. “I’m getting something much more than a paycheck. I feel so proud.”

Reflecting on his previous Cleanslate work in the South Side’s Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, Young described Hyde Park as “a whole different world…beautiful.” But like other neighborhoods, the work has elicited some common stereotypes from local residents and passers-by. Young said he and his co-workers are often mistaken for sanitation and city street workers or even prison inmates on community service duty. Nevertheless, he says, a friendly smile and a casual conversation about Cleanslate’s neighborhood efforts promptly reverse those misconceptions.

In fact, despite the program’s focus on people with troubled pasts, Cleanslate has stringent eligibility requirements, and participants must be drug- and alcohol-free for at least four months, have stable housing, and disclose their full criminal records, although the program does not accept people with convictions for severely violent offenses.

The process of bringing Cleanslate to Hyde Park began with a meeting last year between program representatives and members of the Southeast Chicago Commission (SECC), a Hyde Park community organization, and the East 53rd Street Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Council, according to a press release issued by SECC Executive Director Bob Mason. The East 53rd Street TIF Advisory Council approved $150,000 to sponsor Cleanslate’s Hyde Park operation for one year, according to Mason. Rush said that the program is working with community organizations, the SECC, and fourth-ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle to come up with alternative permanent funding solutions to keep the Hyde Park Cleanslate crews.

As the group prepares its gear to tend to an empty parking lot behind the Hollywood Video on East 53rd Street, Rush says that, while the program doesn’t force religion on anyone, many of the participants rely on their faith above all else to get through the days.

Bonny Brown, a Cleanslate and Cara Program participant since February 2006, attributes her enrollment in the program to divine intervention. Diagnosed in 2001 with breast cancer and recovering from a drug addiction at the same time, Brown recalled the moment when she decided to free herself from the burden of her past. “God told me in a dream, ‘I had to bring you out to bring you in,’” she said, calling her cancer diagnosis a blessing in disguise. “God has healed me,” she says before excusing herself to attend to the day’s work ahead.