IOWA DERECHO 2020

In the derecho's wake, an 11-year-old inspires his neighborhood with his cleanup efforts

'I want to keep helping,' he says

Christopher Brown, 11, uses a grabber tool Friday to pick up debris from the street and sidewalk to clear the way around
Christopher Brown, 11, uses a grabber tool Friday to pick up debris from the street and sidewalk to clear the way around his neighborhood on the border of Cedar Rapids and Marion. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — From the debris of the derecho, an 11-year-old has emerged as a neighborhood inspiration.

Two weeks ago, when a partly sunny day turned to darkness and violent winds whirled, single mom Starlet Smith and son Christopher Brown moved downstairs from their second-floor apartment and huddled in the hallway with neighbors.

“And then the door outside blew off — I mean it was ripped off the building — and the wind and debris and stormwater started coming into the building,” she said. “So we made our way down to the lower level and we were just sort of huddled with our neighbors and praying for the storm to end.”

When the winds finally did subside, Smith and her son went outside to see what had happened.

“Trees were down everywhere, roofs were ripped up, pieces of siding were all over the place,” Smith said. “It was really sad.”

Seeing his neighborhood torn up with debris strewn all over bothered Christopher and he immediately started cleaning up, Smith said.

“I like it when things are clean and neat,” Christopher told The Gazette.

“You could tell he was just looking around and thinking like, ‘This was not good, this is not what it should look like,’” his mom said. “And he just started picking stuff up with his bare hands.”

They live in a pocket of Cedar Rapids north of Highway 100 that abuts the Marion City limits near Legion Park. It is home to a lot of older adults and some individuals who are limited in their mobility, Smith said. Seeing tree branches everywhere, and sidewalks and roads blocked, Smith said she could see Christopher was worried his neighbors’ safety.

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Concerned her son would cut himself on broken glass or scratch himself on tree limbs, Smith took to Facebook to explain what her son was doing, asking if anyone had a rake, work gloves and a wagon they could borrow.

“Next thing I knew, someone from Maryland had contacted a local Home Depot and purchased a wheelbarrow for Christopher,” Smith said. “Then someone else drove up from Independence and spent like a few-hundred dollars’ worth of supplies — like gloves, masks, trash bags, every tool he could need to help clean up.”

From there, Christopher’s determination to return his neighborhood to its pre-derecho state grew into a broader project of helping people and inspiring kids to aid their own neighborhoods.

“Every day he just goes out and cleans,” Smith said.

Some days, she said, they’ll walk until they find a spot to help. Other days someone will contact them and ask for help, “and word just keeps spreading.”

One thing Christopher has continually tried to do is get other kids involved, Smith said.

“There is so much to clean up, and I think he was really saying, ‘I can’t do this all by myself, I need help,’” Smith said.

Smith said the reactions from other kids in the neighborhood and elsewhere have been mixed — some have started their own projects or jumped in to helped Christopher. Others, she said, were reluctant or unwilling.

But as more kids and adults got involved, Christopher and his mom realized they needed more supplies. They set up a fundraising page online to collect donations to purchase more. “We started with a goal of $500,” Smith said. “But then we passed that goal so we said OK, let’s try for $1,000, then $1,500, and it just kept growing.”

She said the money raised would go to tools and supplies for cleanup, and not just for her son but for whoever needs them — especially kids.

Smith said the two weeks that Christopher has been doing this have been transformative.

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“He’s not the same kid that he was before the storm,” she said. “Before this, all he wanted to do was hang out inside and play video games. Now all he wants to do is go outside and help. It’s really amazing to see.”

Normally quiet and shy, he has always kept to himself, she said.

“But now he’s meeting people, he talking to other kids. He’s had total strangers come up and talk to him and shake his hand,” she said. “He’s definitely found more confidence.”

Christopher said he feels good about being able to help his neighborhood and the people in it and he is proud other kids are getting involved.

“I feel good,” he said. “And I want to keep helping.”

Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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