'Be Clean' campaign launches in York City to honor neighborhood hero

The corner of South Duke Street and East Charles Lane needed some tender loving care, as the area was littered with broken plates, plastic bags, fallen tree branches and overgrown vegetation.

Enter the York City Be Clean Campaign — a volunteer effort spearheaded by Felicia Dennis with the goal of beautifying overlooked areas throughout the city. 

"I like being one of those guys who comes out for the good stuff," said Pedal 4 Peace founder Brandt Kingsley, who contributed to organization efforts with Felicia's Tae Kwon Do Karate Studio and Keep York Beautiful, which donated supplies.

The group came equipped with lawn mowers, leaf blowers, brooms, dust pans, shovels and elbow grease on Saturday, Aug. 31, to South Duke Street — a location chosen for the campaign launch because of its historical significance.

It was the site of many weekly and weekend cleanups in the early 1990s by Dennis' mother, Catherine W. Dennis-Holmes — a force in her community, known by some as "Mama Cat," who instilled in her children a sense of responsibility.

Freda Macklin and her husband lived on the 400 block of South Duke Street, while Dennis-Holmes lived on the 300 block.

"She was no-nonsense," Macklin said of Dennis-Holmes, adding she raised her children to respect each other and their community and to have goals and ambitions.

From left, Mark Macklin, of Springettsbury Township, Robert Jamison Jr., of Manchester Township, Seth Baker, of North York Borough, and Anthony Beck, of Dover Township, work together with more than a dozen volunteers to clean up properties at South Duke Street and East Charles Way as Black Star Action Network International launches the first York City Be Clean Campaign by cleaning up properties in the vicinity of East Charles Way and South Duke Street in York City, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. BSANI was founded in October 2017 in response to the devastating floods and mudslide in Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa, by Dennis' brother, Foday Ajamu Mansaray. Dawn J. Sagert photo

More:'What the Food Trucks' returns to York City for Labor Day weekend

After struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, Dennis-Holmes relied on her Christian faith  to turn her life around and wanted to give back to her community.

"This was all ministry for her," Dennis said, adding that her mother would share her story on the corner of South and Duke streets with a bullhorn.

That same responsibility drove Dennis-Holmes' son Foday Ajamu Mansaray to jump into action two years ago in Sierra Leone, Africa, after a tragic mudslide left hundreds dead and many other missing. He helped start the Be Clean Campaign — under Black Star Action Network International — to find survivors. The mudslide struck three years to the day after his mother's Aug. 14, 2014, death.

York City was chosen as Be Clean's first U.S. extension to honor Dennis-Holmes. 

Felicia Dennis, local Black Star Action Network International president, launches the first York City Be Clean Campaign in York City, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. The day is dedicated to Dennis' late mother, Catherine W. Dennis-Holmes, who lived a life dedicated to serving her community. Dawn J. Sagert photo

More:'Everyone here is family': Restoring York's first black cemetery

Dennis' Be Clean T-shirt bears the numbers "717" to mark York's area code as well as her mother's July 17 birthday.

The idea is to bridge the gap between the two countries, she said, and turn the focus from surviving to thriving.

Pablo Diaz, a 16-year resident on the recently rehabbed corner, said no one comes to clean the alley, so he welcomed the opportunity to  sit outside with his family in the newly cleared space.

He agreed to have the side of his building painted with a "splash of Africa" — a goal of the group to leave a mural in tribute of the organization's roots at each space they clean.

Brandt Kingsley, of York City, who is founder of Pedal for Peace, mows as clean-up begins on East Charles Way as Black Star Action Network International launches the first York City Be Clean Campaign in York City, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

More:Left uncertain by blaze, York City store owners remain positive

"This is where we're from," Macklin said. "When you take pride in where you live, it gives you a sense of pride."

Brandi Cooper, Tamela Lee and Brian Fisette were among those who came out with the PoGo Community Outreach group — a volunteer arm of the Pokemon Go community that is seeking any opportunity to help.

"We're trying to connect people in need with people who can give it," Lee said.

And for some, it was a chance to bridge the divide in the country.

"I just love going against all the social norms — the media social norms," Kingsley said, by showing that people who are different are willing to work together.

Most of the volunteers on Saturday did not live in the neighborhood, yet they came together from diverse backgrounds to help their city, he said.

"In this time of need, where there's so much tearing us apart... if we can just do one thing to bring the community together," Lee said, it's worth it.

Brandi Cooper, of Manchester Township, throws branches into a pile as clean-up begins on East Charles Way as Black Star Action Network International launches the first York City Be Clean Campaign in York City, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. Cooper was one of a group of volunteers from the PoGo Community Outreach group. Dawn J. Sagert photo

More:York City seeks healing through first ever 'Unity Fest'

Mark Macklin Jr.  said, "York isn't the same York," as it used to be — with fewer people out and about, whether because of social media or violence.

But seeing people doing good is "infectious" and often drives others to join, said Jonathan Barnes, of York City.

The group hopes to expand efforts to any community members in need — offering painting, lawn mowing and yard cleanup for property owners — and it could be just the beginning.

Dennis said Be Clean organizers hope to expand the organization to other parts of the country, starting with Louisiana.