Sunshine Urbaniak hopes her new organization, My Community Cares, will help lead volunteers to pitch in with properties that need a little TLC.
By Matt Skoufalos
Municipal governments in Camden County have struggled to get a handle on the impact of foreclosed and abandoned properties for more than a few years now, even building inter-community coalitions to address the problem.
Residents can point out the homes on their blocks that have fallen into disrepair, the maintenance of which often falls to already overtaxed public works departments or frustrated neighbors.
Instead of letting things get to that point, Collingswood resident Sunshine Urbaniak has a simpler answer.
“Let’s guerrilla garden the crap out of it,” she said.
A graphic designer and avid gardener, Urbaniak wondered what her neighborhood would look like if everyone shared her passion for landscaping. She believes that a group volunteer approach to such tasks—and others—could help to rejuvenate properties while helping to instill a broader sense of community in the borough.
“It’s the idea of doing something good without getting anything in return,” Urbaniak said. “It’s the difference between walking past a piece of trash and complaining about littering, and picking it up and making a difference.”
In order to get her neighbors to think beyond their own property lines, embrace an attitude of engagement, and get their hands dirty, Urbaniak formed a grassroots program called My Community Cares.
With a little organization and some sweat equity, she believes that it can help inspire broader positive change through simple beautification efforts.
“You don’t have to be a gardening expert to volunteer,” Urbaniak said. “Essentially there is a project leader—someone with gardening experience who’s willing to come up with design plans and design ideas—and then there’s someone who wants to help out.”
The My Community Cares website functions as a dual-purpose portal: volunteers can sign up to participate in beautification efforts, and community members can nominate properties that could use a little sprucing up.
Urbaniak doesn’t want to limit the reach of the project to blighted lots, either. She believes that My Community Cares can function as a clearinghouse for gardening tips as well as a source of momentum to get such projects off the ground. Volunteers will work with homeowners to make a plan for the property, execute it, and keep it maintained.
“We’re not going to come to your house every week to mow your lawn or water or weed,” Urbaniak said. “We’re starting with these front-yard beautification projects, telling you what we can do for no money down, whether it’s edging, replanting some plants, pruning, weeding.”
Urbaniak is also sensitive to the idea that approaching the people she will want to help may require a light touch. Here, too, she sees another opportunity to build communion with her neighbors.
“Who knows what kind of stories, why their yard may look that way?” Urbaniak said. “It’s just a matter of being there for one another. This is another avenue for people to connect.”
Urbaniak also hopes that My Community Cares could coordinate the efforts of fellow agriculturally minded neighbors in a borough that already has a thriving community garden, a vibrant farmers market, and a rich tradition of pitching in to make things happen. Whether helping to plant additional trees in Knight Park, shovel snow in winter, or even beautify downtown storefronts, she believes there’s more than enough work to go around.
“I really see this becoming a portal for all good things for Collingswood,” Urbaniak said. “The whole point is to help out a neighbor; help out a friend. We’re going to bring 12 people, and we’re going to rally around your property and bring good energy and make it the best it can be. Who doesn’t want that?”