On Dec. 17, the Pick of the Litter crew consisted of Tommy Phonhsongkham of Grape and Grain Exchange, Peter Thomas of Taverna, Kate Carpenter of Grape and Grain Exchange and the Bearded Pig, Matthew Lindsay, Tyler Ennis, Kayla Hay, Hunter Sparks, Merritt Fay, all with Taverna. Top row: Ryan Barnes of Taverna, Mary Halloran of Taverna, San Marco’s Ryan Moore of Three Palms in Ponte Vedra, and Travis Jones of St. Nicholas. Front: Anna Dooley. Dogs: Gretzky and Baron. (Not pictured, Lorena Kalatsi and Andrea Sylvia, both with Taverna.)

It all started about six months ago on a simple walk to work.

Matthew Lindsay, an employee of Taverna, was enjoying great weather as he made his way from his apartment behind Bold Bean Coffee Roasters to his job in San Marco Square when he became dismayed by the copious forms of litter dotting the landscape along the way.

“I was disgusted with how much trash I saw on such a short walk,” said Lindsay, who works at Taverna. “So, I told some friends that I wanted to do something about it.”

The result was “Pick of the Litter,” an informal crew of 15 or more local service industry professionals who gather once a month to spend an hour of their free time cleaning the streets of San Marco. The group meets at noon the third Monday of every month by the Lions statue in San Marco Square. They are easily recognizable by the green vests they wear, courtesy of Anna Dooley, member of the Keep Jacksonville Beautiful Commission and executive director of Greenscape.

Matthew Lindsay with Andrea Sylvia
Matthew Lindsay with Andrea Sylvia

Inspired by the thought that picking up litter could be an impactful way to give back to the San Marco community, Lindsay discussed his idea with good friend and work colleague Hunter Sparks of San Marco over a glass of wine. “We said, why don’t we just go do it, so we did it,” he recalled. A couple weeks later, the duo ventured out to pick up all the trash they could find along Hendricks Avenue, filling up four large garbage bags by the time they made it to V Pizza. “We picked up all the trash we could, but it was daunting and clearly more than a two-man job. So I posted on Facebook about what we had done and the response was overwhelming.”

The group of litter-pickers expanded to seven within the service industry on its second foray from San Marco Square down Atlantic Boulevard to Daily’s gas station. A month later the crew had doubled, and each time since has picked up a few more willing hands to assist in its quest to clean up the entire San Marco community.

“We’ve been tripping out every month, and it’s getting bigger and bigger and a little more organized. We’re having fun, too, at the same time,” said Tyler Ennis of Taverna.

“The main thing is to inspire people not to litter. We’ve discovered if you take the initiative, and you take action, people will respond to it,” Lindsay said.

Mary Halloran, Kate Carpenter and Hunter Sparks
Mary Halloran, Kate Carpenter and Hunter Sparks

So far, in addition to Lindsay and Sparks, Taverna’s Peter Thomas, Kayla Hay, Merritt Fay, Ryan Barnes, Mary Halloran, Kimberly Beers, Tyler St. George, Lorena Kalatsi, Guisseppe Abetangelo, Hanna Dodd, and Andrea Sylvia have turned out joined by Tommy Phonhsongkham and Markie Souder of Grape and Grain Exchange and Kate Carpenter of Grape and Grain Exchange and the Bearded Pig, San Marco’s Ryan Moore of Three Palms in Ponte Vedra, Tyler Ennis of Taverna, Nolan Jones of Dos Gatos, and Travis Jones a St. Nicholas resident.

A few months ago, Dooley was in her car when she noticed the volunteers. “I was driving through the Square and saw some people with trash bags, so I pulled over and started a conversation. They were doing it with the simple desire to do something good,” she said, adding she quickly donated the neon-green vests to help keep the young people safe and advertise what they are doing. They have no funding from the San Marco Preservation Society or the San Marco Merchants Association. They buy their own bags and do it on their day off.”

Understanding the volunteers were purchasing their own garbage bags, Ennis, who works at Aardwolf Brewing Company got his firm to donate 30 rice bags used at the brewery to recycle them. The Riverkeeper has also promised to provide buckets and grabbers to the group so it can fill the bags as full as possible, Lindsay said. 

Lorena Kalatsi with Tyler Ennis
Lorena Kalatsi with Tyler Ennis

“I wanted to do this because I’ve worked here in San Marco for two years, and I have fallen in love with this kind of micro-
community,” said Sparks. “We want to do something good for the community and engage our service-industry colleagues. We all work hard, demanding jobs, and it’s not the most fulfilling thing to serve food and drink. This gives a sense of empowerment and allows those individuals to translate that motivation to other aspects of their life,” he said, adding he’s noticed that since Lindsay was “driven” to establish the group, he has been happier at work and more engaging. “It’s a positive influence, not only for the community served but also for the people doing it.”

Carpenter, of San Marco, agreed. “I think it is awesome because we aren’t sponsored by anybody. It’s not our bosses telling us to come out. It’s us, wanting to care about the environment – the place where we live and work. We see trash from our own restaurants on the ground, and it makes us more conscious of the to-go cups and silverware we are giving people because that is what we are picking up.”

“Lots of times business people will see us out,” added Merritt Fay. “The ice cream shop gave us ice cream one day. They tell us how much they appreciate it. Everyone is reaching out. I live and work here, so it is important to keep it clean.” 

At present Pick of the Litter is concentrating on cleaning up San Marco, but Lindsay has not ruled out inspiring service professionals in other neighborhoods to follow his lead by cleaning up their neighborhoods. 

“If someone lives over in Riverside or Avondale or a different part of Jacksonville and hears about it and wants to start their own group, we’d love to have them join up and become a force to save the planet, one road at a time,” Lindsay said. “We don’t have a mission statement, a motto or a logo, but we have the idea for a motto, ‘We’ll pick up where you leave off,’” he said, noting former San Marco resident Robbie Freeman has suggested the group design a logo to put on pens, hats, and sunglasses so they can sell them to have money for gloves, bags, and water.

Carpenter is wary of expanding too quickly. “We’ve discussed spreading, but this is all based on the passion to be here,” she said. “I don’t want to lose the concentration of what we are doing in San Marco. We definitely want to inspire people, but right now San Marco is where our hearts are.”

“It’s amazing they are out there working hard with no other purpose but to keep the place clean. They aren’t raising money or seeking recognition. It’s very refreshing to see people today doing something like this out of the goodness of their heart,” said Dooley, noting she has requested Keep Jacksonville Beautiful put up an Adopt-a-Road sign along one of San Marco’s streets in Pick of the Litter’s honor.

“They’re actually picking up trash and people are noticing,” said Joe Carlucci, president of the San Marco Merchants Association. “It seems like a small thing, but it really is not. No one else was doing it before they were. We are very thankful.”

Interested in joining Pick of the Litter? Email Lindsay at [email protected].

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