Is it a miracle that Route 21 in Passaic is clean!

29 07 2008

PASSAIC – The usual piles of litter — old tires, beer bottles and flyaway papers — along the sides of heavily traveled Route 21 have suddenly disappeared.

It’s not an environmental miracle, but the hard work of 10 young people — nine teenagers and a 24-year-old — hired to prune, cut grass and clean up eight grassy strips adjacent to the highway.

The Downtown Merchants Corp., a non-profit dedicated to beautifying the city, hired them to work for five weeks during the summer. They are being paid $9 an hour through a $35,000grant that Downtown Merchants received from the state Department of Transportation this year. Wearing long pants and long-sleeved T-shirts and armed with machetes and weed-whackers, the crew worked seven hours a day, five days a week, cleaning up the debris in the blazing summer sun. They said that although it’s hard work, they are learning valuable life lessons.

“It gives you respect for people who do it year-round,” said Branden Valenzuela, 18, who recently graduated from Passaic High School and plans to attend Bergen Community College this fall. Valenzuela wants to study business.

And with college tuition rising, Valenzuela said the summer job will help defray the cost. “I’m trying to take the weight off my parents’ shoulders for college,” he said.

The Downtown Merchants Corp. applied for the $35,000 competitive grant through the DOT’s Urban Gateway Enhancement Program. The program provides jobs and employment opportunities for urban youth in the fields of forestry, landscaping and streetscaping. This year, the Passaic group was among 10 awarded grant money for the summer program. It is the first time in two years that a city group has received such a grant.

City officials have lauded the program for helping young people find jobs in the summer, when traditionally the part-time job market is crowded with college students. At a time when the economy has taken a downturn and families may need the extra money, the summer program is a good opportunity, they added.

“They are making money, they are keeping busy and, third, they are learning skills,” said Victor Santiago, Downtown Merchants director, as he drove around the city on a recent sunny afternoon, pointing out some of the newly manicured spots.

One local businessman, Jaime Delgado, owner of JFJ Delgados Landscaping & General Contractor, of Passaic, is working with the crew, teaching them pruning techniques and how to use the equipment.

At the end of the summer, those who successfully complete the program will receive a diploma listing the job skills they have acquired, Santiago said.

Some of the workers said the money they earn this summer will give them extra cash for things like a new laptop computer or pay for public transportation.

“If my mother is in a good mood, she’ll give me money,” said 15-year-old Yusef Reaves, “but usually I have to buy my own ride or [movie] ticket.”

Reaves said he is saving money so he can attend college out-of-state and not make his parents pay the extra tuition costs.

“It’s going to cost a lot of money to get a dorm room,” he said.

Darnell Burrells, 24, said the summer program was teaching him something more important than just landscaping. Burrells said he understands how important it is to get a college education so he won’t have to do menial jobs. He wants to work in a field he really likes: music.

Burrells said he sings in the church choir at Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church on Autumn Street and operates a recording studio out of his home.

Although he was happy to have a job, Burrells said, he was less than enthusiastic about the cleanup work.

“The only thing is the bugs and allergies and stuff,” Burrells said. “It has got me thinking, do I really want to do this for the rest of my life? Definately no.”




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