On the first Saturday of every month, a crowd gathers outside the 7-Eleven at the corner of Independence Avenue and 15th Street SE. Chattering to one another, the friends and neighbors sip coffee as they collect supplies. They are the 7-Eleven Community Clean-up Crew, a group of Hill East residents who fight litter on the streets of their community. The neighborhood convenience store is the meeting place and the sponsor.
About twenty people come out every month, said Tom Dunkel and Brendan Casey, who together spearhead the efforts. Many are neighbors, some bringing their children. About ten members of the local Community Action Group, including President Janice Dessaso Gordon, are regular participants.
Gursharan Singh, the owner of the 7-Eleven at 1501 Independence Ave. SE, is the sponsor of the clean-up. He provides gloves, trash bags, coffee and donuts to participants. He also takes care of trash collection for the bags of garbage that members of the team bring back after they take a turn through the neighborhood, a costly and critical contribution to the group effort.
The 7-Eleven Community Clean-Up was the brainchild of Tom Dunkel, a Hill East resident who decided he needed to take action after noting what he saw as an increase in litter as he walked his dog around the neighborhood. The 7-Eleven crew is his second time organizing such a clean-up. In 2011, he organized teams that met at metro stations to pick up litter. That effort, he said, fizzled out. But the need remained.
“When we walk the streets, it’s just amazing,” Dunkel said. “Occasionally you just get the straight 20-dollar bill, but it’s [also] the dirty diapers and the used condoms all over the street.”
Denise Krepp (6B10), a local Commissioner with Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6B has participated in the clean-ups together with her two daughters, working along A Street from 15th to 19th Streets. She said in January they picked up wet jackets, empty beer bottles, plastic coverings, cigarette butts and numerous soda cans.
“For many years, trash covered Hill East streets. I’d like to commend Tom Dunkel, Brendan Casey, and 7-Eleven for creating a monthly neighborhood clean-up event to remove the debris,” said Krepp. “The event beautifies our street[s] and I’m extremely grateful for their leadership on this initiative.”
After one recent clean-up day, crew members brought twenty bags of trash back to the 7-Eleven, to be stored in Mr. Singh’s interior trash room and collected together with the garbage from the store. “That day, we overflowed their trash collection,” Dunkel said.
Why Didn’t You Wake Me Up?
Singh took over the 7-Eleven store in July 2017 and immediately fell in love with the neighborhood. “It’s a community store, and I’m people friendly, and like to be involved with people,” Singh said. “I feel like I’m part of the family here, and I feel very comfortable with these guys.”
Singh and 7-Eleven Market Manager Nancy Wade take part in the monthly clean-ups as well. Wade drives from Ellicott City MD to participate, and Singh goes out into the neighborhood, often accompanied by his two college-aged daughters, who also work at the store, and his 14-year-old son.
“A couple of times, my son didn’t come, [because] he was sleeping and I didn’t want to bother him, and he was so mad at me,” Singh said, saying when he returned home his son asked, “‘Why didn’t [you] wake me up?’”
He said that his son’s enjoyment of the community clean-up is evidence of how much fun it can be. “So it’s a good thing, I think, and we should continue.”
Behind the Corporate Façade: Families
Casey said he was initially “a very vocal opponent of 7-Eleven.” About two years ago, he moved from beside another 7-Eleven franchise in Northeast, where crime and trash were a serious problem. A year later came an announcement that a 7-Eleven would be built a few doors down from his home. “And I was like: you gotta be kidding me,” he said.
“And then once Mr. Singh took over, it was like a lightbulb clicked,” Casey said, snapping for emphasis. “and he was all on board with helping out.”
A big complaint in the neighborhood, particularly after July 11th (7/11, or Slurpee Day) was that the litter from straw wrappers was ‘out of control.’
“You could just see people walk out, and they’d pop their straw and throw the wrapper on the ground,” Casey said.
In response, Singh transitioned to paper-wrapped straws, where the entire straw is made of paper products as well as the wrapper. The entire product is biodegradable. Wade says the innovation is unique in the region.
“I gotta say,” Casey adds, “behind the corporate façade there are families and people that work at these businesses, and I could not think of better people to come into our community.”
Pick it up sooner, before it gets to the river
Dunkel and Casey have plans to expand the community clean-ups to other locations on the Hill and eventually, the District. To that end, they are reaching out to businesses for sponsorship, community organizations for partnership and residents for additional participation.
The clean-up crew would like to expand their efforts for Earth Month in April, and are making efforts to get additional businesses on the Hill involved and to shine a positive light on partners like 7-Eleven, who they say are crucial to their work’s success.
The two say that ideally, there would be 10 or 15 business sponsors offering sites from where clean-up crews could depart.
To illustrate the link between streets and rivers in the District, they have reached out to the Anacostia Watershed Society in regard to the April Clean-up. They point out that trash on Hill streets makes its way into the rivers.
“May as well pick it up sooner rather than later, if you can,” said Dunkel.
They have also reached out to District Public Schools, notably Eastern High School, in hopes of organizing a regular monthly student clean-up. They also hope to work with the expanded environmental education programming at Kingman and Heritage Islands to instill the importance of litter pick-up for the environment.
Finally, they say the more people that participate, the better. “If we can get a group of people to commit to a few weekends a year, we’d have enough people every month that we do it,” said Dunkel.
“We want people who haven’t tried it just to come out and at least, join us one time,” said Casey.
Singh says if people can’t join in, it would help if they would go out for four minutes and do a clean up in front of their homes.
You can get on board and join the crew for a session of what Dunkel calls group ‘litteraerobics’. The group meets on the first Saturday of every month, weather permitting. The next meeting of the 7-Eleven Community Clean-Up Crew is at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 3rd in front of 7-Eleven (1501 Independence Ave. SE).
For more information or to talk about becoming a sponsor, contact Tom Dunkel at [email protected]
This article has been corrected. It originally gave the year of Dunkel’s first clean-up effort as 2001. It was 2011. We regret the error.