This Philly teacher is picking up trash to buy a school bus

Student volunteers with We Love Philly. (Courtesy of Carlos Aponte)

Student volunteers with We Love Philly. (Courtesy of Carlos Aponte)

A nonprofit in Philadelphia is holding an unusual fundraiser to try and bring in some extra cash: picking garbage off the streets from sun up until sundown.

“We’re not only trying to raise funds,” said Carlos Aponte, “we want the community itself to have an actual stake in our education and hold us accountable.”

Aponte is a history teacher and the president of We Love Philly, an educational organization that, as he puts it, aims to “bring the classroom to the community.” Many of the students who participate have been poorly served by schools and institutions, and the program’s course work mixes practical 21st-century digital skills with social and emotional learning, as well as building relationships with community groups, nonprofits, and entrepreneurs through volunteer work.

But moving students all over town for coursework is no easy task — particularly, Aponte says, during the pandemic. We Love Philly serves four different school campuses spread across neighborhoods in North Philadelphia, and one of its pedagogical missions in getting students to see new areas of the city.

“A lot of my students don’t ever leave their block, and they don’t ever see different parts of Philadelphia,” said Aponte, who also teaches history at an alternative school in Fairhill.

His solution: buy the organization its own school bus.

“I’m gonna have the students fully design it, they’re gonna paint it, they’re gonna decide and budget what goes inside of the bus,” Aponte said.

The organization is trying to raise $10,000 in donations to purchase a used school bus. So far they are about halfway there.

Lemonade stand, this fundraiser is not. Aponte chose to organize a cleanup rather than a typical money-maker with community needs in mind.

“It goes back to that ownership,” he said, explaining that he wants for neighbors to see that the students understand they all share the same streets and space. “We figured cleanups were a good way to engage the community, let the community know what we’re about, let them know that we’re here to stay.”

The fundraiser comes amid a citywide sanitation crisis that has inspired city residents to take action in all kinds of ways, ranging from renting out dump trucks for a DIY pickup route in South Philadelphia to handing out bright orange street trash cans in Germantown. One city sanitation worker, Terrill Haigler aka YaFavTrashman has even gone out and raised $32,000 to buy protective gear for his fellow city workers dealing with mounting cleanup duties in a pandemic.

Aponte scheduled his trash collection fundraiser for Saturday in Fairhill but postponed a week because of the stormy weather. He hopes the cleanup will get We Love Philly students engaged with residents, connected with local businesses, and engender a sense of shared ownership. If the organization demonstrates care and commitment, Aponte says, then maybe down the line a local business owner or community group will think of his students when a job opens up or donations are requested.

“Give love, get love, that’s the mantra I’m trying to show the students,” Aponte said.

We Love Philly had planned on handing out backpacks filled with school supplies to kids in Fairhill as they cleaned. Those materials were donated by nonprofits where We Love Philly students had volunteered in the past. Now, Aponte said, they were filling up a hallway in his home while the fundraiser is on a weather hold.

Understanding that collecting litter is not the most enjoyable of civic activities, Aponte had also managed to get a hold of a bunch of portable speakers so students and volunteers could play music.

“We’re gonna try to make it fun,” he said.

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