A Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Kiwanian starts a litter (re)movement and inspires an entire town.
By Cindy Dashnaw
Jennifer Richardson was angry. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, once described by Mark Twain as a city “clothed in flowers, like a bride,” now was clothed in trash.
“It’s everywhere,” says Richardson, a member of the Kiwanis Club of Red Stick. “Every time I’d pull up to an intersection and see all the garbage, my blood pressure would bubble up.”
Ditches were filled with litter. Weed-choked medians caught cigarette butts and aluminum cans. Boxes
and fast-food containers clung to underpasses. Sitting at a trash-laden intersection one day, Richardson gripped her steering wheel with resolve.
“I finally decided I was tired of listening to myself complain. I was going do something about it,” she says. “I promised myself that I’d spend the next Saturday morning picking up that trash.”
She posted her plan on the social media sites Facebook and Nextdoor, casually inviting others to join her. A few days later, she was ready with boots, gloves and trash bags.
“I’m in the median, pulling weeds, picking up beer cans and liquor bottles, and I’m thinking, ‘I must be the talk of the town — the crazy old lady that’s out in the street picking up trash,’” she says. “But then I looked up, and people were coming out of the bushes to help.”
Ten volunteers filled 42 contractor-sized bags with trash in just three hours.
“The more we did, the better we felt. The feeling was euphoric. Everyone was saying they hadn’t felt this good in 30 years,” Richardson says.
Since then, Richardson has built a cadre of 50 volunteers.
Every Saturday since January 2021, they have shown up when they can, picking up trash. Sometimes they also work on unscheduled weekday cleanups. Richardson started a Facebook page for her “litter warriors” and dubbed the group Keep Tiger Town Beautiful, named after the mascot of the city’s beloved university football team. Earlier this year, she was nominated for the prestigious Kiwanis Club of Louisiana State University’s Kiwanian of the Year award for her efforts.
Leading by example
After hearing about Richardson’s project, the Kiwanis Club of Red Stick invited her to speak about her cleanup efforts.
“I raised three kids by myself and have never been a member of anything,” Richardson says. “But now I’m in my 60s. I devote most of my time to volunteering. So I joined the club. Members have come to my Saturday cleanups, and we had a service day where the club unanimously voted for my group to be the recipient. A bunch of Kiwanians came out, and they still do.”
Keep Tiger Town Beautiful is not a registered nonprofit and doesn’t ask volunteers to make a time or financial commitment. It exists because Richardson inspires people with the desire to improve their surroundings.
Visiting her children in Georgia and Texas, current KTTB volunteer Sue Abshire noticed their towns were much cleaner than Baton Rouge.
“I joined Jennifer’s group on the Saturday after my son’s wedding, and I’ve been going ever since,” Abshire says. “Sometimes I’ll go three or four times a week. I love it. I feel like I’m doing something for this city.
“A lot of volunteers bring their kids, and we’ve had teenagers and law school students. We even have a little boy, Lance, who had his birthday party with us. Jenn gave him his own trash grabber and a little neon vest.”
Another KTTB volunteer, Nanette Olivier, first heard Richardson’s name as a speaker for Louisiana Master Naturalists of Greater Baton Rouge.
“I was just bowled over with Jennifer’s energy and dedication to making a difference in our community,” Olivier says. “I have a fair amount of energy myself, but she has a tireless spirit. You can’t help but follow such an enthusiastic person and want to make a difference with her.”
For Olivier, an appreciation for Baton Rouge’s natural environment is a motivating factor.
“Litter in our city mars the natural beauty,” she says. “When you see all this litter around, people get the mindset that it’s normal. Jennifer’s group can change what we see as normative behavior. We respect our environment, we do what we can to pitch in, and it’s not acceptable to trash it up.”
The volunteers, clad in bright yellow KTTB T-shirts, clean up areas that the city won’t. As of April 2022, they had filled 3,300 contractor-grade bags with litter — about 165,000 pounds of trash. Appreciative city residents donate whatever supplies the group needs.
“People will drop off contractor bags at my house, or they’ll give enough money to get us through the next weekend or two,” Richardson says. “I recently asked for trash bins. Next thing you know, a local pharmaceutical company dropped off big, beautiful blue bins at my house.”
In late 2021, Richardson shared the need for a truck to haul supplies.
“The next Saturday, in rolls a big ol’ truck with a huge, covered trailer. Seth Dawson (president and CEO of the company Paperless Environments) jumps out and says, ‘Jennifer, I’ve been trying everything I could to clean up the city. I’ve called everybody and nothing gets done. Then I saw your web page and that you’re doing something every day. This is for you.’”
Inside were rakes, shovels and a new John Deere tractor. Dawson even promised to drive the trailer to Saturday cleanups.
“I started crying,” Richardson said. “These are the finest people you will ever meet. They’re so humble and precious. They work side by side pulling the most disgusting things out of drains, yet they keep coming back.”
This story originally appeared in the June/July 2022 issue of Kiwanis magazine.