By AARON HILL
Special to the Times
If you happened to be driving down Main Street in Merced on a recent morning, you may have caught sight of something new downtown.
Garbed in vibrant green shirts, hats and gloves, and armed with trash grabbers, the “Restore Merced” team was busy cleaning up trash on the Main corridor. After a sweep from the team — picking up thousands of discarded cups, straws and cigarette butts, and cleaning out an abandoned homeless camp — the public areas looked bright and clean.
It all reflected the pride that we all feel toward our downtown.
Leading the team was Silverio Garcia, the crew chief. Garcia was one of the first graduates of Restore Merced’s work preparation program, Jobs for Life, which helps build the habits, attitudes and soft skills that enable successful employment.
The local effort, however, adds the new “Restore Jobs” strategy that builds upon Jobs for Life by providing actual work experience. The approach is informed by previous experience and successful work programs in other cities, including Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles and New York’s “Ready, Able, & Willing.”
Restore Jobs provides work experience for individuals who have been formerly homeless, incarcerated, and are in recovery from addiction, that are transitioning to the workforce and housing independence. It provides skills and affirms dignity through work, allowing individuals in the program to create a solid job history and provide training for more skilled positions. The program will have participants engaged for a period of six months to a year, depending upon the needs of the individual. Alongside work, the program provides a framework and support network that encourages accountability and long-term success.
The first phase of “Restore Jobs” will clean public areas downtown, Bear Creek, and Black Rascal Creek, which at times have seen significant trash build up from homeless populations and littering.
Working alongside the crew, were the two founders of Restore Merced, Matt St. Pierre and Caleb Medefind. The two young men are natives of the area. They went away to college and began successful careers in other cities, but ultimately decided to return, motivated by a deep love for the city and people of Merced.
“The Merced region overflows with so many good things: rich agriculture, Lake Yosemite, beautiful mountains, friendly and caring citizens, our great junior college and the new University, and so much more,” St. Pierre said. “The challenges Merced faces are significant, too, but even those are great opportunities that can be turned to contribute to the great future we see for Merced. That’s what Restore Merced is all about.”
Similar programs show that for $1 invested, taxpayers save $3.60 on emergency and criminal justice expenses.
Medefind observed, “It’s tempting to respond to poverty by providing money or material goods. That can be helpful in an emergency. But often, giving money does more harm than good by sapping personal initiative and injuring the dignity of the individual we aim to help. Typically, people are back in the same situation when the money runs out. Helping people succeed in work is a huge part of helping them change the trajectory of their lives.”
Many residents and business have pitched in to support the new program. This includes a van already provided by Via-Trailways. The overall Restore Merced effort offers business marketing sponsorships ranging from $500 to $5,000, which provide varying levels of partnership marketing including things like Facebook ads and sandwich signs near the work crews. It is estimated that a monthly donation of $1,500 will allow for regular clean up of 5 miles of roads & bike trails.
Sam Geil, who helps run and manage the Central Valley Opportunity Fund had this to say about the initiative and the founders, "I believe that Caleb and Matt represent the future for sustained success by providing local solutions for managing long-term homelessness in Merced. My role was to help secure funding for the project on a capitol basis, and was happy to do so, based upon their solid business plan and strength of character. Although homelessness is a national issue that can benefit from federal and statewide funding, this is an issue that will primarily be solved through local initiative and effort, which Restore Merced provides."
Each year, the Merced City Council reaches out to the community to gain input on those areas of interest that are most important to residents. The council then establishes budget goals and priorities to guide the allocation of the budget and prioritize projects for staff. During the fiscal year 2018/19 priority setting sessions, the city council identified “City Beautification” and “Community Wellness” as priorities for the upcoming year. The Restore Merced projects aligns with these priorities by blending a work experience program with city beautification in the areas defined.
In addition to the Restore Jobs program, Restore Merced also engages the community in other ways. ‘Jobs for Life’ is a program providing ongoing education for soft skills, resume building, interview training, one-on-one mentoring. They also provide budgeting and personal finance class, a key area for individuals on the road of transition out of poverty and housing insecurity into sustained independence. Lastly, an emphasis on working with downtown neighbors for the good of the community, Restore Merced also provides an after school program that focuses on mentorship and academic skill building.
St. Pierre summed up Restore Merced’s vision for the future of our community: “Our programs focus on community transformation in downtown Merced by entering into transformative relationships that provide economic, social, and spiritual flourishing for all residents.”
As for the success of the initial clean up — downtown business owners and tenants took note. Manuel Alvarado from The Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce said: “It’s encouraging to see people caring for the downtown corridor; seeing these young men making a commitment to bettering their lives and investing in their future is what Merced values are all about.”
Mayor Mike Murphy also stopped by to congratulate the group on their hard work and for the effort they were putting in to beautify the downtown area.
If you happen to see them hard at work on the bike paths or on Main Street, say hello, honk your horn, and let them know that you support their work to Restore Merced!