Through a contract with the village of Oak Park, crews from the social enterprise Cleanslate have been picking up litter, removing snow, cleaning up graffiti and keeping the village beautiful since January. Come spring, the crews will trim trees, plant flowers and pick up after festivals. A symbiotic relationship, Cleanslate makes Chicago-area communities better, while giving its crewmembers the confidence and skills to lead fuller, more successful lives.

Cleanslate is a subset of Cara, a program dedicated to helping people locked in the negative cycle of poverty and its challenges, including incarceration and episodic homelessness. 

“It helps provide transitional job opportunities for people going through our program, working to find permanent employment,” said Mark Toriski, Cara communications and marketing director. 

“There’s no stereotype of who comes here. We’ve had people coming out of addiction, out of intergenerational poverty,” said Toriski. “We have people who are escaping domestic violence.” 

While Cleanslate has only recently had a presence in Oak Park, the program is coming up on its 15th anniversary and has provided 2,748 transitional jobs and picked up over 10,000 tons of trash, while diverting over 3,000 tons of recyclables from landfills. 

Beyond that, Cleanslate gives its crew members a sense of self-worth and responsibility. Employing both men and women, crewmembers are called interns and paid for their work. 

“I’m doing a lot of things now that I thought would never be possible,” said Cleanslate intern Lawrence Johnson.

Formerly incarcerated for retail theft, Johnson came to Cleanslate in December 2019 after hearing about it through a friend. 

“I was in Cook County Jail and I was living a totally negative criminal lifestyle. I just got tired of it. It wasn’t productive,” Johnson said. “When I got out, I decided to seek out some help – people who could help me better my life.”

Since coming to Cara and starting Cleanslate, Johnson has never, not even once, thought of returning to his former lifestyle. Johnson now works all over Cook County, including Oak Park. He called Cara “a beautiful place.”

“It’s a place that has love, understanding, caring and they help you with all the obstacles in your life,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that have a lot of obstacles that they feel like they can’t get through or overcome.”

While it is welcoming and kind, Cara, and by extension Cleanslate, hold people to high standards, teaching accountability, professionalism and time management.

“You gotta put the effort in and the work in. I have to get up on time. I have to communicate with people. I have to show professionalism. I have to have leadership skills. I have to be a team player,” Johnson said. “All those things mean a lot to me.”

Johnson’s confidence in himself has grown. He’s proud of himself. He finds satisfaction in making places more beautiful than before. He loves being in a team and the camaraderie hard work brings.

“My favorite part of the experience is meeting with people and getting to know them,” Johnson said.

The people at Cleanslate appreciate Johnson for who he is, not what he was.

“The people at my job, they love me. They depend on me. That means a lot for me to have people that trust me,” Johnson said. “It’s important for me to do good things in life and to help people.”

Johnson is also taking control of his financial life with guidance from Cara.

“It means a lot to have that support system. They helped me to get a bank account. They helped me to do my taxes. Now I’m rebuilding my credit,” he said. 

Johnson has a 16-year-old daughter, who helped inspire him to change his life.

“She told me, she said, ‘Dad, just don’t go back to jail. I’ll take care of you,'” he said.

His daughter recently won third place in a high school speech tournament.

“I’m very proud of her and she’s proud of me too,” he said.

While Johnson admits he was nervous to approach Cara and start Cleanslate, the discomfort of making a change outweighs living an unhappy life.

“It is hard to change, but when you’re tired of living a negative life and getting the results that come from living a negative life – it feels good to me to start over and to redevelop my life,” he said. “The most important thing is that change can happen, no matter how hard it is, no matter how many obstacles you face, no matter how far down the scales you’ve gone.”

Cara helps people to build better futures, even when it feels impossible. 

“They helped me to grow as an individual, as a human being,” Johnson said. “I’m going to be the person that God created me to be.”

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