One winter day, Dorothea O'Neil and Peggy Noble were looking out from the windows of Good Cakes and Bakes and surveying the streets as white flurries transformed into grey slush on Livernois Avenue. The 76-year-old O'Neil is an active participant in her block club and helps clean up blocks with MotorCity Makeover, so she's no stranger to the hard work of serving her 7 Mile and Greenfield area neighborhood.
"My mother was busy until she died," says O'Neil. "I try to get involved and do things in my neighborhood and I enjoy it."
But shoveling snow is a hard task for O'Neil and many of her neighbors. So when she got an email about a snow team, she called the city to request their help.
Dorothea O'Neil, whose sidewalk is shoveled by the Detroit Snow Team
For many Detroiters, the arrival of winter means ice skating in Campus Martius, the Motown Winter Blast, and the North American International Auto Show. But for senior citizens, it's a season of challenges as they struggle to get their sidewalks, streets, and driveways cleared.
The Detroit Snow Team is a city-led volunteer effort to help seniors and the disabled with winter weather when there's six inches or more of snowfall. It relies on coordinating a network of volunteers to seniors and the disabled that have reached out to the city for help.
In 2018, its inaugural year, the city says that 26 volunteers served 31 seniors throughout the winter.
Noble, president of the College Park Community Association, says that being snowed in is a common problem for seniors in her neighborhood. "In College Park, we have a lot of people in their 50s and 60s, but the majority of them are seniors who can't get out," Noble says. "I can't sit in the house for three or four days snowed in. I have to get out."
Noble breaks down this issue into monetary terms. She points out that many seniors cannot afford to shoulder the cost of unanticipated shoveling services, even from the neighborhood kids, because many of them live on a fixed income.
According to former volunteer coordinator Chelsea Neblett, the Detroit Snow Team started out as a Serve Detroit snow removal event to "dig out" residents. Many district managers were receiving requests from seniors during snowstorms to assist with shoveling.
Detroit Snow Team volunteer Rico Razo
The snow team reached out to members from the previous year and put out an additional call for volunteers.
"For years and years and years, the city has been forgotten," says Noble. "Nobody thought about the neighborhoods, what we can do to help the seniors, the disabled in our community. So, I’m really excited about this. We can't sit around any longer and wait for the city or someone to do something for us."
When Detroit Snow Team volunteer Marcus Cummings received the email calling for volunteers from his neighborhood association, he immediately wanted to participate. "This is new. This has never been done before," Cummings says. "I'm actually happy to see the city and the Mayor's Office thinking outside the box."
As vice president of the Schaefer 7-8-Lodge Community association, Cummings says that he sees neighborhood volunteerism making a lasting impact on the city. "I think there is a spirit of volunteerism in Detroit. We have in District 2 the most community organizations in the city."
As a recipient of Cumming's service, Noble is grateful every time she sees him shoveling. One time, Cummings shoveled her driveway so she could get in and out safely after a Christmas party.
Cummings takes his volunteering seriously and has a few recommendations for how to improve the snow team. For one, they could use some better equipment. "If the city had snowblowers at each recreation center where volunteers could pick it up and bring it back," says Cummings.
Snowblowers would also enable more people to volunteer for the program, even those in their 50s or 60s. "Some people in that age group don't have the stamina to shovel," says O'Neil. "Even if we had one for each association, that would make a difference."
Cummings agrees that the biggest benefit will be brought about by more volunteers. "A lot of folks want to volunteer. A lot of folks want to help," said Cummings. "I introduce a lot of younger folks who say 'I want to volunteer, but don't know where to start.' This is an easy first step."
Dorothea O'Neil with Detroit Snow Team volunteer Marcus Cummings
Joshua Green, a University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy student, volunteered for the Detroit Snow Team after hearing about it from his mom. "I was taught when I was young that helping out my community is very important," he says. "Ever since I was young, I've been doing it."
Helping out in his Rosedale Park neighborhood, Green started shoveling as soon as he saw the first snowfall. The work is rewarding because of the relationships he's developed with his neighbors. "You get to know them. They can call you whenever they need something. They can rely on you. And yes, we can rely on our neighbors."
Cummings hopes this program is a success for those he has served. "Honestly, our seniors keep the neighborhoods afloat. We got to make sure we're helping them out," says Cummings.
As Noble exits the bakery, she sees her car under inches of snow. She signals a young man on the street to help her and he gets to work digging her out. Perhaps another Snow Team volunteer.
If you'd like to volunteer or request service for the Detroit Snow Team, call coordinator Breanna Sullivan at (313) 224-9008.
This article is part of "Detroit Innovation," a series highlighting community-led projects that are improving the vitality of neighborhoods in Detroit, while recognizing the potential of residents to work with partners to solve the most pressing challenges facing their communities.
The series is supported by the New Economy Initiative, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that's working to create an inclusive, innovative regional culture.
Photos by Nick Hagen.