Flint, Mich. —The Latinx Technology and Community Center recently held its first neighborhood clean-up of the year, part of a larger effort to maintain 50 empty lots on Flint’s east side throughout the summer and fall of 2021.

The group of volunteers made up of Asa Zuccaro, the center’s director, and a handful of University of Michigan School of Nursing students spent the latter part of Thursday morning picking up garbage, sweeping glass off the nearby sidewalk and pulling used tires out of overgrown ivy nests. 

Emma Vollmer trims a tree on a vacant lot on the corner of Lewis Street and Davison Road in Flint, Mich. on April 7, 2021. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

By the time they were done, trash from parking lot on the corner of Lewis and Davison filled several 44-gallon bags. Volunteers pulled over a dozen tires pulled out from surrounding lots and trimmed and cut dead trees.

Zuccaro, who led the effort, said tackling a high traffic area like Lewis and Davison, which serves as the intersection between the roads that lead to I-475, downtown Flint, the city’s east side and the tech center itself, is crucial to having a strong start to the cleanup season. 

Keeping 50 empty lots free of blight is a lot of work, but Zuccaro said he hopes to expand that level of care to the remaining 110 vacant lots in the surrounding area in the future.

A pile of tires dumped on the vacant lot at the corner of Lewis Street and Davison Road in Flint, Mich. before volunteers cleaned up on April 7, 2021. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

While preparing the group of volunteers for the work ahead of them, Zucccaro mentioned oftentimes, the things people choose to leave lying along the side of the road and in abandoned lots can be baffling.

“Who knows what we might find,” said Zuccaro to the nursing students. “Every summer we do this I’m always interested in what we’ll find. We have a youth group who volunteers with us and one summer we almost found enough (car) parts to build a car.”

In order to keep up with the demand of work 50 empty lots require to stay clean, the LTCC uses its relationships with organizations like The University of Michigan to draw in volunteers. 

Asa Zuccaro does some landscaping during a cleanup of a vacant lot on the corner of Lewis Street and Davison Road in Flint, Mich. on April 7, 2021. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

Nicky Smith, a clinical instructor at the UM-AA School of Nursing, has been bringing students from her community health course to Flint for the last three semesters.

According to Smith, her course centers around the idea that a healthy community can affect the health of the individual and that something as simple as having a cleaner environment can be a step in the right direction. 

“We’ve talked a lot about the social determinants of health and how a healthy neighborhood can really promote one’s health and well-being and taking pride in where you live,” Smith said.

As to why she specifically reached out to the LTCC, Smith said with the Latinx population expected to nearly double by 2050 it is important for new nurses to be familiar with Latinx cultures. 

“We really need to learn about them (the Latinx population), learn their language, their culture and learn how to care for these individuals. Being in the community, I think is a good way to bring light to that and in general, it’s good to foster an appreciation of volunteering … and actually being hands-on.

Smith also touched briefly on the problems with human capital flight. Also known as brain drain, human capital flight is used as a term to describe individuals who receive advanced education or training in or near their community and leave to pursue their careers elsewhere. In the case of nursing and many other healthcare professions, this means students graduating from institutions like UM-AA are not actually searching for jobs in surrounding areas like Flint. 

University of Michigan nursing student Jess Viale picks up trash off of a vacant lot on the corner of Lewis Street and Davison Road in Flint, Mich. on April 7, 2021. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

Natalie Wise, a senior nursing student at UM-AA who is originally from Port Huron has already secured a position at Johns Hopkins Hospital working in its bone marrow transplant unit.

Wise said learning to go out and volunteer within the community is an essential part of being a nurse.

“This is really important for us to be doing in nursing school because we have to really understand the communities we work in. We’ll all be working inside a hospital most likely but we need to understand the population that we’re working with. We need to understand the resources people have available to them and what their lives are like,” Wise said. 

For his part, Zuccaro said he’s happy to receive the help. He said he hopes continue giving students a better understanding of the community by exposing them to Flint’s needs, like its fight with blight, as well as its successes, like the LTCC. 

Garrett Smith, son of University of Michigan professor Nicky Smith, cleans up trash from a lot on the corner of Lewis Street and Davison Road in Flint, Mich. on April 7, 2021. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)
Michael Smith, son of University of Michigan professor Nicky Smith, picks up trash on a vacant lot on the corner of Lewis Street and Davison Road in Flint, MIch. on April 7, 2021. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

Zuccaro also hopes keeping the east side of Flint as clean as possible will incentivize community members to want to use and take care of public spaces. 

“From us you can expect us to continue to maintain the 50 lots. We hope to do more as we usually do but we really hope to continue to activate this neighborhood and really have our culture represented as part of the east side,” Zuccaro said. “Really I hope we can inspire other individuals to come out to be active in their neighborhood and play a role in making their home and community a better place to live.”

The LTCC’s next neighborhood cleanup take place on Saturday, April 17 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Work will continue along the Lewis Street corridor this time with the help of the City of Flint Blight Division who will be providing dumpster containers for the waste to be carried away in.

Santiago Ochoa is Flint Beat's Latinx Community reporter. He is always looking to write about anything Flint or Latinx. He especially enjoys investigative reporting and human-interest stories. A communications...

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