Operation Downtown | The Helpers Next Door

Operation Downtown | The Helpers Next Door

Jun 24, 2020  | 116

by Emily Blobaum

When it seemed like everyone left their downtown Des Moines offices to work from home in mid-March, at least one organization stayed behind.

Working from home wasn't an option for the 20-person team at Operation Downtown. They had a crucial job to maintain: to keep downtown Des Moines safe and clean, just as they have done for the last 22 years.

Operation Downtown ambassadors work behind the scenes every day of the week to remove graffiti, pick up litter, remove weeds and empty garbage and recycling containers. Newly added to their long list of duties is an increase in sanitizing and disinfecting high-touch surfaces like parking meters, handrails and park benches.

“We are on the front lines to keep people safe,” said Julie Skalberg, an Operation Downtown ambassador. “When you have something this scary, you want to be seen out in force and let people know that we’re here and they can feel secure.”

"People ask us if we're worried about touching trash cans,” added ambassador Cynthia Allen. “It's in the back of your mind always; it's not going to go away. But I think I'm out here doing the right thing.”

This is a glimpse of what working on the frontlines of a pandemic looks like through the eyes of those in the waste management and sanitation industry.

Every shift begins with zone assignments. Each ambassador is given a zone, or area of downtown, where they’ll stay all day. Operation Downtown patrols a 177-square block area, with a rough border that stretches from Martin Luther King Jr. Pkwy to the west and the foot of the Iowa State Capitol to the east, to I-235 to the north and the Raccoon River to the south.

Ambassador Cynthia Allen is assigned to Zone 2, the Court Avenue district — one of her favorites. Armed with a dustpan and broom, she’ll spend her entire shift sweeping up litter. She says she can walk between 5 and 10 miles a day.

She says cigarette butts are by far the most common type of litter, but it’s not uncommon for her to sweep up dead birds that crashed into windows, food wrappers and both human and dog excrement.

When she’s not looking down, she’s returning shopping carts to HyVee, looking for graffiti and helping people.

She makes a point of smiling and greeting everyone she passes and asking how they’re doing.

“I like to talk to people. I get a lot of my energy from them,” Allen said.

When Allen witnessed the mass exodus of businesspeople from downtown streets, it took a toll.

“It was horrible. It sucked. It was ghostly,” she said. “There was nothing to clean up and people weren’t out walking... When you get your energy from other people, it’s like, ‘this is going to be a bad day.’ People don’t want to shake hands or give hugs anymore.”

Allen sweeps up a pile of discarded sunflower seeds.

Allen sweeps up a pile of discarded sunflower seeds.

“This is where I worry [about contracting COVID-19] sometimes,” she says. “This has all been in someone’s mouth. We have no idea what we pick up or if what we touch has coronavirus. If there’s thousands of people with it, God only knows what they’ve touched.”

Skalberg sanitizes a mail collection box.

Skalberg sanitizes a mail collection box.

Despite the risks, both Allen and Skalberg agree that they love their jobs, that it gives them a sense of purpose.

“All of the services that we get to do; it’s just amazing that we get to do these things,” said Skalberg. “I feel like it’s an honor to give back to our community. It’s almost the perfect job, wouldn’t you say so, Cynthia?”

“Yeah, definitely.”