Got you covered: Graffiti removal ministry lightens neighbors’ burdens10-01-2010
By Amy Forbus
In March of this year, while on a drive down North 50th Street in Fort Smith, Becky Neighbors and her husband saw an older couple cleaning graffiti off the side of their business.
“I thought to myself, ‘I wish we had time to stop and help them,’” Neighbors said. “Not long after, I noticed that their building was ‘tagged’ again.”
Neighbors, the administrative assistant for the West District and an active member of Midland Heights United Methodist Church, decided to learn what could be done: “I went home that evening and started researching how to remove graffiti.”
Then in April, the idea began to build some steam during a ministry meeting at Midland Heights UMC. Attendees were discussing ways to increase the church’s presence in the community when church member Daniel Grubbs brought up the graffiti in the neighborhood.
Grubbs, a sergeant with the Fort Smith Police Department, explained that it is the responsibility of the homeowner to remove the graffiti, and those who cannot remove it promptly risk being fined by the city. But many homeowners who find their property tagged do not have the physical or financial resources to remove it on their own.
So Midland Heights members decided to explore the possibility of a ministry that serves low-income homeowners with graffiti removal.
“Becky took the bull by the horns and said, ‘I’m going to run with this,’” Grubbs said. “I give 90 percent of the credit to Becky on this… I was just the one sitting there as a policeman saying, ‘If you really want to help this area, this is my suggestion.’”
At a West District Leadership Team meeting in May, Neighbors brought up the graffiti ministry to see if others might be interested in helping. The Rev. Janice Sudbrink, an associate pastor of First UMC Fort Smith, loved the idea. Midland Heights and First UMC were among the West District churches that last fall had worked together to build a Habitat for Humanity house, and they hoped to continue partnering on community projects.
By the time Neighbors and Midland Heights pastor the Rev. Dan Williams met with representatives from the city and the police department, the churches already had a coalition ready to work.
With the blessing of the Rev. Mike Morey, West District Superintendent, the City of Fort Smith began giving out Neighbors’ name and the district office telephone number to homeowners who have received citations and need help cleaning up graffiti. The Graffiti Removal Team (GRT) went into full swing.
When Neighbors receives a call, the process starts rolling: Neighbors and Sudbrink visit the site, take “before” photos and estimate the amount of paint and supplies needed. They then confirm a work date with the homeowner and assemble a team. Because homeowners have 10 days to remove any graffiti on their property before they face fines, the team makes every effort to schedule the work within a week of that first visit.
The GRT provides a practical ministry that serves lower-income areas and meets a need for those who cannot cover the damage on their own, Neighbors says.
“One of the calls I received the other day was an 87-year-old lady,” she said.
“We go in and just take care of it, no strings attached… we provide the supplies and do the work.”
The two churches don’t do it on their own, though.
As the GRT effort began, “We realized that we would need some funding and donations to help with supplies,” Sudbrink said. “Through the Fort Smith First UMC Foundation, we were able to secure donations to buy paint, brushes, ladders, scrapers and other supplies.”
Several area businesses have chipped in with donations, too: Lowe’s has agreed to donate any paint that has been tinted the wrong color or has gone unclaimed after being mixed, and the local Sherwin-Williams and Ace Hardware locations provide items at reduced cost.
From the non-profit sector, Arkansas Valley Habitat for Humanity plans to donate surplus paint as part of their “give back to the community” program.
Other area ministries are ready to jump in, too. Now that classes are back in session, student teams from The Bridge campus ministry at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith are now on standby to help. And Wesley UMC has expressed interest in helping fight graffiti.
The GRT occasionally needs translators to assist in communicating with homeowners who do not speak English as their first language. As a result, the North Fort Smith Hispanic Mission UMC has volunteered to offer translation whenever the need arises.
Groups from outside the church that have expressed interest include Juvenile Services of Fort Smith, which wants to integrate the graffiti jobs into their community service options, and Fort Smith Boys and Girls Club, which plans on recommending the GRT to students wishing to log community service hours.
The GRT has built a trusted relationship with the local government, so the city knows that when they e-mail Neighbors a list of properties that have been tagged, the team will take action.
As a normal part of the job, the GRT calls the non-emergency number for the police department to report when and where they will be working on graffiti removal. They also follow the city’s recommendation to never send a person out on a job alone.
“The city of Fort Smith has been nothing but helpful, and has called a couple of times to just say thank you for what we’re doing,” Neighbors said.
Sudbrink says that for First UMC, joining the GRT is a natural step in an effort that began three years ago.
“We have begun to reach out beyond our doors and minister in our neighborhood through local school projects, block parties, breakfast on the last Sunday of the month, and with a food ministry,” she said.
“Not only have we made new friends in our neighborhood when working on the graffiti ministry, we also have made new friends with our sister churches.”
A personal difference
At one location this summer, the home’s vinyl siding was simply too hot to paint. The team made the decision to scrub off the graffiti, which proved extremely difficult. But the task brought with it an eye opener for one of the members of Midland Heights.
“One of the ladies from church who went with us, in her prior life, had actually done some graffiti,” Neighbors said. “She had tagged a little bit. And she said, ‘Becky, it’s way harder to take it off than it is to put it on!’ It was an ‘aha’ moment for her—like an, ‘Oh, my word, I can’t believe I did this.’”
Neighbors says team members find the work rewarding.
“The people who go out and do this work love assisting the homeowners,” she said. “They’re really fired up, and that’s a pretty cool thing.”
What you can do:
• If you have a graffiti problem in your community, visit graffitihurts.org for educational resources and removal tips.
• To learn more about the GRT and how you might start a similar team in your area, contact Becky Neighbors at 479-783-0385 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Donations to either Midland Heights UMC or First UMC Fort Smith with “graffiti” in the memo line will benefit this ministry.