As sunlight evaporates the morning dew and chill, two friends and I lug shovels to a roundabout on West Clemmonsville Road. We pry small bushes out of their black plastic containers, break up the knotted root balls, and plant them in pre-dug holes. It’s so simple, children could do it.

And they are.

Some are with their families; others with groups from schools, churches, and organizations. At the meeting point earlier, a diverse assemblage had gathered for T-shirts, supplies, and a quick snack before we were sent down the road to our assigned locations.

You’d think it’d be boring, but out here, in an unfamiliar neighborhood, with hundreds of other volunteers working to make the place prettier — it’s exhilarating.

Community Roots Day is one of the beautification projects that Keep Winston-Salem Beautiful spearheads to keep our community healthy and visually appealing. An affiliate of Keep America Beautiful, KWSB is part of the city’s Sustainability Department and has been giving citizens opportunities to participate in environmental initiatives for the past 26 years.

At the helm for the last 20 years is Executive Director George Stilphen, who says there are a lot of benefits to taking care of the environment beyond the obvious.

“Studies indicate that beautification projects and neighborhood tree planting increases property values and reduces crime rates,” says Stilphen.

There are also significant advantages to the local economy.

“Nobody wants to move to a dirty, ugly city,” he says. “Improving the look and feel of a city means more businesses and individuals move there, which improves not only the health of the environment but the economic success of the community.”

In addition to Community Roots Day, KWSB sponsors the Clean & Green School Contest and Flower Bed Program, as well as anti-litter initiatives such as the Great American Cleanup in the spring and Big Sweep in the fall.

During the Great American Cleanup, volunteers are assigned to different locations, including parks, greenways, schools, or neighborhoods, to collect trash. Groups that have adopted streets, parks, and streams can use the event to accumulate community service hours, and public schools can clean up their campuses before the Clean & Green judging begins.

This year, the Great American Cleanup is part of Forsyth Creek Week, which is holding its own cleanup projects and educational opportunities across the county, such as nature walks and a tour of the Archie Elledge Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Stilphen explains why it’s so important to keep waterways clean.

“The biggest reason is because they’re part of the city’s drinking water,” he says. “If we don’t keep them clean, it will negatively affect what comes out of our taps, and the chemicals that leach into the water can kill wildlife.”

Stilphen notes that cigarette butts are considered litter, too, and are harmful to the environment.

“Cigarette butts are the most littered item of all types in the country by far,” Stilphen says. “The filters used to be made of cotton, an organic material, but now they’re made of plastic, so they’ll sit on the ground for 10 to 20 years before they decompose, leaching chemicals in the meantime.”

KWSB offers free pocket and car ashtrays to anyone who smokes traditional cigarettes and wants to dispose their butts ethically.

All of the projects that KWSB facilitates are funded through grants and in-kind donations, so donors may want to know: To what extent has KWSB succeeded?

The stats say it all.

In 2017, more than 18,000 volunteers planted 700 trees and shrubs and 300,000 flower bulbs. They cleaned 75 miles of waterways and 250 miles of roadways, collecting more than 72,000 pounds of trash and debris. Because of their efforts, Winston-Salem earned a 1.44 Litter Index score, which is a great achievement. According to the Litter Index, scores range from 1 to 4, with a 1 meaning there’s virtually no litter, and a 4 representing extreme litter.

Above all, KWSB is cost effective: The cost-to-benefit ratio for the city is 8.7, meaning that for every dollar the city spends, nearly $8 is returned in benefits.

“We’ve received the President’s Circle Award for 15 years, and over 12,000 trees have been planted since [KWSB] began,” says Stilphen. “Last year’s Big Sweep cleanup was the largest in the state in terms of the number of volunteers, and Community Roots Day has served as a role model for other affiliates’ municipalities across the state and nationwide.

“Overall,” he adds, “I think we’re doing a bang-up job.”

Want to Go?

What: Great American Cleanup

When: Saturday April 6 from 9 a.m. to noon

Misc.: Lunch, supplies, and drinks are supplied

Info: Contact georges@cityofws.org or visit kwsb.cityofws.org to pre-register

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