Flint, MI – A simple change to Flint resident Lisa Pasbjerg’s walking routine also helps give back to the community.

“I live very close to Glenwood Cemetery and I walk my dogs there a lot,” she said. “I just started taking a big bag with me to pick up trash as I walk. It had never occured to me before, but I hope it has become a habit now to always carry a bag with me.”

Pasbjerg is one of several residents participating in a unique, self-driven volunteer campaign in April led by the Flint River Watershed Coalition. For more than 20 years, the Watershed Coalition has hosted a stewardship day in April, bringing hundreds of volunteers together for cleanups and other activities along the Flint River to beautify the community and prepare for spring. Unable to host a big gathering during the COVID-19 outbreak, the group shifted its strategy. Instead of a single day, the Watershed Coalition has declared April 2020 Stewardship Month and is encouraging residents to do projects on their own and share the results.

“People need something to do, so we decided to make the whole month about encouraging people to do stuff outside and make an impact in their own areas,” said Rebecca Fedewa, executive director of the Flint River Watershed Coalition. “We hope the cumulative impact of all of these small projects will be as big as one big service day.”

The organization is encouraging cleanup activities and has a form online so people can log the number of bags of trash picked up and share photos of unusual finds while picking up areas in the watershed. But Fedewa also notes they’re encouraging other types of projects as well.

“It’s just what works for each individual or family,” she said. “It’s wonderful if people notice their storm drain is covered and go out and clear debris. Picking up trash is always important. Just doing projects around the house, like composting or raising awareness and helping educate neighbors or kids. It can be anything people want to do that has the benefit of sprucing up their area.”

In addition to picking up trash along her walking route, Pasbjerg has also started composting.

“Crises like this bring out the best in people coming up with innovative ideas,” Pasbjerg said. “The Watershed Coalition is breaking new ground on creative ways to engage people.”

Another Flint organization that relies on volunteers, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Flint, has also had to get innovative to sustain its operations during the crisis. Access to mentors is particularly important for kids now, without school as a social outlet.

“School is a social outlet for them,” said Reta Stanley, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Flint. “There is a lot of stress going on in families, and mentors help to relieve some of that stress. They understand and we all understand how important that is that the child has the opportunity to stay connected with trusting friendships they’ve built and also supporting their parents during this time.”

The Big Brothers Big Sisters staff and volunteers have quickly become acclimated to using tools like Zoom, playing online games, and sending letters as ways for mentors to keep in contact with kids in the program while following social distancing guidelines, but a virtual model is a big adjustment for an organization that relies heavily on personal interaction.

“We’re a one-to-one, up close and personal friendship place,” Stanley said. “Most of our interaction is in person, so our whole premise is around spending time together to give kids exposure to places they’ve never been before. We’re making a lot of adjustments and looking for more virtual tools to help with that connectedness.”

The organization also has to account for the fact a major digital divide still exists in the Flint community, with many households lacking access to high speed internet or devices necessary to foster virtual connections.

“We’re working with funders to help families who don’t have internet or devices, so they’re able to stay connected,” Stanley said. “We are about the relationships, but we are also about families being able to have resources.”

Although Big Brothers Big Sisters has had to postpone its annual golf outing fundraiser, its popular Spring Flower Sale is virtual — orders can be placed through the website. The organization is also still accepting and training volunteers using virtual tools.

“Children that we serve already have a number of challenges, so this adds a huge stress to their lives,” Stanley said. “We have a waiting list (of kids who need mentors). If there are people out there interested in mentoring or donating, we are always appreciative.”

Patrick Hayes

Patrick Hayes is a freelance writer with bylines for ESPN.com, the Detroit Free Press, Next City, Sierra Magazine, Lifehacker, MLive, and others. He also contributed an essay to "Happy Anyway: A Flint...