By Sam Hankins, City of Victoria communications specialist.
This article originally appeared in the November issue of Texas Town & City, published by the Texas Municipal League.
PHOTO: From left, City of Victoria Special Projects Manager Keisha Smith and Keep Victoria Beautiful Executive Director Christy Youker pose for a photo during the Queen City neighborhood cleanup hosted by Keep Victoria Beautiful in early 2023.
When Christy Youker meets with other Keep Texas Beautiful program leaders, everyone wants to know: What’s the secret to your neighborhood cleanups?
“They get really excited about it,” said Youker, executive director of Keep Victoria Beautiful, which is part of the City of Victoria’s Community Appearance Division. “No one else is doing them the way we do them.”
In addition to large-scale cleanups along highways, KVB hosts two cleanups per year in residential areas. Youker has started referring to these cleanups as “resource fairs,” since they involve much more than picking up litter.
At KVB’s first cleanup in the Queen City neighborhood, Queen City Park was filled with government and nonprofit representatives promoting their services. The Victoria Police Department gave away bikes, and the Victoria Fire Department gave away smoke alarms. Kids tossed around balls provided by Parks & Recreation. Volunteers sipped coffee from a local vendor, and they handed out potted plants donated by a local radio show’s listeners.
The number of volunteers at the cleanups has doubled in less than three years, and the scope of services has also grown steadily, fueled by KVB’s emphasis on community involvement.
“Keep Victoria Beautiful is about all of Victoria coming together to make our community better,” Youker said. “That spirit of teamwork and community pride is what makes Victoria beautiful.”
Getting started on the southside
PHOTO: Volunteers carry bulky trash away from a home during a cleanup hosted by the City of Victoria on Victoria’s southside in 2020.
The neighborhood cleanups started in November 2020 as part of a broader City effort to revitalize underserved areas. For the first one, the City partnered with the Southside Community Coalition, a grassroots group seeking to promote fellowship and civic involvement.
The City’s approach to revitalization is multilayered and includes event coordination and partnerships as well as monetary support for nonprofits through the Community Development Block Grant program. Another piece of the puzzle is empowering residents to use the resources already available to them.
This vision of revitalization powered by community involvement had recently prompted the City to create an in-house Community Appearance Division—which, soon afterward, assumed management of the then-defunct nonprofit Keep Victoria Beautiful.
Although KVB wasn’t directly involved in the first cleanup, multiple City employees were among the 100 volunteers who spent the day brightening the neighborhood and connecting residents with services.
The cleanup was an ideal platform for existing outreach initiatives, such as the Victoria Fire Department’s Fire Safe 2025 Program. The program aims to put smoke alarms in 90% of single-family homes by 2025, and the cleanup brought the department 100 smoke alarms closer to that goal.
“These events give us a great opportunity to canvass the neighborhood and install smoke alarms where needed,” said Fire Chief Tracy Fox.
The Victoria Public Library likewise found an opportunity to get creative in its mission to serve its patrons (and potential patrons) beyond the walls of the library.
“We try to help people where they are,” said Library Director Jessica Berger. “That could mean signing people up for library cards in their neighborhoods, and it also means helping them clean their yards while we tell them about our services.”
Parkway: Building community involvement
PHOTO #1: Volunteers gather in the C3 Victory Church parking lot for a cleanup hosted by Keep Victoria Beautiful in the Parkway neighborhood in 2021.
PHOTO #2: Victoria Police Department Sgt. Adam Banda greets City Councilman Andrew Young during the Parkway neighborhood cleanup hosted by Keep Victoria Beautiful in 2021. The police department’s Community Engagement Unit was among the agencies that shared information and resources with residents during the event.
When the time came for the next cleanup, KVB was in the driver’s seat—but they couldn’t do it alone.
As KVB prepared for the cleanup in Parkway, the nonprofit found an ally in nearby C3 Victory Church. Congregation members helped to spread the word, recruiting volunteers and identifying households that needed extra help.
In addition, Appliance Pro volunteered to remove Freon from collected appliances, which allowed the City to collect old refrigerators during the cleanup.
And, with help from the Salvation Army and Del Papa Distributing, KVB provided breakfast at the start of the cleanup and lunch afterward—a must for the hungry volunteers.
“Partnering with local businesses is just one more way that we bring people together,” Youker said.
Silver City: Making a connection
PHOTO: Volunteers pose for a photo at Martin Luther King Jr. Park before the Silver City neighborhood cleanup hosted by Keep Victoria Beautiful in 2022. The Salvation Army provided breakfast tacos before the event.
Part of the magic of the neighborhood cleanups, Youker believes, is that they give residents a chance to meet the people they’re helping.
“When you make that one-on-one connection, you know that you’re making a difference,” Youker said.
As KVB prepared to host a cleanup in Silver City, local radio hosts Ash Wayluchow and Brent Carter invited their listeners to be a part of that connection. During an appearance on the Wade & Carter Show, Youker gifted the hosts with a potted cactus, and they decided to pay it forward by rallying their listeners to give away potted plants during the cleanup.
True to the duo’s irreverent style, they dubbed the initiative with an acronym standing for “Plants On Others’ Porches.”
“Our volunteers want to be able to engage around something tangible, and we give them that opportunity,” Youker said. “It could be giving someone flowers or helping people move trash that they can’t move on their own.”
There were also some new faces among the resource booths at the event. Residents who visited Martin Luther King Jr. Park that day could learn about enrolling at Victoria College, connect with nonprofits and take home a young tree from Parks & Recreation.
Silver City, Part Two: The cleanup that (almost) wasn’t
PHOTO: Keep Victoria Beautiful volunteer Tommy Darwin, husband of executive director Christy Youker, paints a home in Silver City in 2022 as part of the Brush Up program in partnership with Habitat for Humanity.
KVB planned to come back later and clean the rest of Silver City, but a gusty November forecast forced them to cancel at the last minute.
Nevertheless, a few City representatives and Habitat for Humanity volunteers showed up at a Silver City home on Nov. 10 and 12 to paint, install siding, trim trees, remove stumps and clear debris.
It was the first project of the new Brush Up partnership with Habitat for Humanity. Based on a similar program in Plano, the program aims to beautify neighborhoods by helping out with minor exterior improvements.
Although the team was smaller than expected, the first house was completed, and KVB gained another partner for its revitalization efforts.
Meanwhile, the City did not neglect the areas that were missed. Mailers were sent out in English and Spanish inviting residents to bring their trash to the curb. Residents were told to call the City if they needed help moving their trash, or if they wanted a free smoke alarm.
Queen City: Taking back the park
PHOTO: Senior Police Officer John Turner adjusts a child’s bike chain during a bike rodeo hosted by the Victoria Police Department at Christ’s Kitchen in the Queen City neighborhood in 2022. The department hosted another bike rodeo in Queen City in early 2023 in coordination with the neighborhood cleanup hosted by Keep Victoria Beautiful.
Many longtime residents of Victoria’s Queen City neighborhood have fond memories of shooting hoops with family and friends in Queen City Park. Nowadays, though, the park isn’t thought of as a family environment.
A safe and inviting park can go a long way toward lifting up a neighborhood, which is why the City has recently made improvements here and in Martin Luther King Jr. Park, including new nets for the basketball hoops and solar-powered LED lighting for safety.
Another important resource can be found nearby at Christ’s Kitchen. In addition to providing a free hot meal each day, the nonprofit serves as a place for local partners, including the City, to provide services and share ideas about what can be done for this neighborhood.
When KVB started to plan its first cleanup in Queen City, Youker wanted to capitalize on these existing relationships to make it the biggest cleanup yet. That meant bringing together more government agencies and nonprofits. It meant coordinating with the Victoria Police Department, which was planning a bike rodeo at Christ’s Kitchen, so that the events could be held on the same day.
The bike rodeos, where VPD gives away donated bikes and provides lessons, are about more than just bikes. The Community Engagement Unit, which organizes the rodeos, fulfills VPD’s philosophy of community policing by fostering relationships between officers and the residents they protect—and the neighborhood cleanups are another way to do just that.
“These events not only create opportunities for officers to interact with citizens under positive circumstances; they also give us the chance to work hand in hand with the public towards a common goal,” said Senior Police Officer John Turner.
When the big day came, the park and the surrounding area were buzzing as around 200 residents showed up to help Queen City. Residents came outside to see what was going on—and then pitched in to help.
For Christ’s Kitchen Executive Director Trish Hastings, the transformation of Queen City Park was especially gratifying. People came to the park to learn about resources or just to socialize, while kids rode bikes and played with toys from Parks & Recreation’s “Pop-Up Park” mobile trailer.
“It felt like a park again,” she said.
PHOTO: Volunteers gather in Queen City Park before the Queen City neighborhood cleanup hosted by Keep Victoria Beautiful in early 2023.
KVB returned to Queen City in October, this time focusing on the Will Rogers Park area of the neighborhood. KVB will also return to Silver City and serve the residents who didn’t get the full cleanup experience last time.
As for what additional resources these cleanups may offer, it’s anyone’s guess.
Whatever opportunities may arise, KVB will continue to approach them with the same open-mindedness and collaborative mentality that have always helped the neighborhood cleanups thrive.