Pensacola, Florida
Thursday December 18th 2014

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Lawnmowers of Love

Tending the Landscape, Less Fortunate
By Jeremy Morrison

Standing near a pick-up truck full of lawn equipment, a group of men admired a Saturday morning’s worth of yard work. Piles of brush are stacked neatly in an otherwise clear yard. Later on, some folks are coming by to fix some busted windows.

“The neighbors have already been showing up, saying ‘Man, this is great,’” said Al Sengstock.

The cleared Mission Street property doesn’t belong to Sengstock. It belongs to an 80-year-old widow who was staring down code enforcement violations and citations.

“So, what do you think?” Sengstock asked one of the men admiring the yard. “And we get home in time to watch the playoffs.”

One of the Best Days

The men who just finished loading up the truck with lawn equipment are volunteers. This time, the volunteers stem from Marcus Pointe Baptist Church and Greater Little Rock Baptist Church.

“It makes you feel better,” Sengstock said. “This will be one of the best days they have all week.”

Sengstock recently started up Good Works Partnership, Inc. The non-profit organization’s mission is to help people whip their properties into shape.

Good Works focuses on properties that are in danger of receiving citations from Escambia County and the city of Pensacola.

“We just want to make Pensacola pretty again, for lack of better words,” said Jermaine McCants, a volunteer on the Mission Street job.

As a Marcus Pointe church member, McCants is part of a group that focuses on helping widows and widowers. He turned Good Works on to this particular property.

“She’s very thankful,” he relayed a sentiment from the homeowner.

Looking up and down the street, Sengstock detailed his vision. He’s hoping for a pay-it-forward style contagion.

“I bet you come back here in two weeks and you’ll find the neighbors sweeping their sidewalks,” he said. “You have to start somewhere.”

Banking on Goodness

The Good Works founder had earlier explained the concept. In addition to assembling volunteer work crews, the organization also loans out tools people might need to “heal themselves.”

“We have shovels, hammers, nails, paint stuff,” Sengstock said. “Anything people need to renovate their properties.”

This isn’t the first time Sengstock has launched such a venture. He’s taken similar approaches in communities in Arizona and California. The efforts have apparently met with good results.

“I’ve really banked on the goodness of people,” Sengstock explained. “They’ve never proved me wrong yet.”

The concept of helping people, or helping people help themselves, came about during Sengstock’s time as a code enforcement manager in Prescott Valley, Calif. In an effort to ease his officers’ consciences, he stumbled onto a formula he now calls “accidentally brilliant.”

“My officers kept coming to me saying, ‘Look, I’ve got an 80-year-old woman here and I’m about to write an $800 citation—this isn’t right,’” Sengstock recalled. “I was just trying to find a way to keep my officers out of that moral dilemma.”

Locally, the code enforcement divisions of Escambia County and Pensacola have warmed up to Sengstock’s concept.

“At first they were a little goosey because they didn’t know I came from the world I did,” he said, explaining that it sometimes takes time to convince authorities of the program’s merit—“after three months they’re going ‘ohhhh.’”

Over at Escambia’s code enforcement offices, the Good Works program is going over pretty well.

“We are loving the idea,” said Sandra Slay, division manager of the county’s code enforcement department.

Slay said that the county often encounters properties that are in violation of various codes. The owners, however, are sometimes not in the position to bring the properties into compliance.

“Financially, they don’t have a lawnmower, the lawnmower’s broken, or in some cases, their lawnmower is stolen,” Slay said.

When dealing with properties in danger of drawing citations, local code enforcement officers now have somewhere to point the owners for help. A place to go for tools and supplies, or for a pool of volunteers ready to help out.

“Which is awesome,” Slay said.

Sengstock said that he finds people often times cannot afford to clean up their properties due to other financial obligations. With crunches in the economy they are consumed with simple, basic obligations like putting food on the table.

“People that were marginalized are now beyond the margin, if you will, and they’re getting banged on by code enforcement and looked at by their neighbors,” Sengstock said. “They’re trying to feed their kids, they don’t have money to go out and buy a lawnmower.”

Sometimes people are reluctant to approach a group like Good Works. Too proud to ask for help.

For this reason, Good Works keeps it discreet when help is sought.

“If people come up and say, ‘who are you guys?’” Sengstock explained, “we just say we work for the owner.”

Like a Good Neighbor

As the program gains steam, Sengstock hopes to broaden its scope. He envisions trailers full of lawn equipment—“a roaming toolbox”—that can be lent to entire neighborhoods. He’d like to see geographically-specific teams of volunteers form.

“That’s really what we want,” he said, “neighbors helping each other.”

Good Works is also receiving some help of its own. Local businessman and Blue Wahoos owner Quint Studer has provided the organization’s initial funding. The group’s A Street headquarters has also gotten spruced up with some new carpet and tile from Master-Tec Floors.

Sengstock said Good Works is also looking for further donations—both financial contributions as well as used lawn equipment—and, of course, more volunteers. For more information, Good Works can be reached by phone at 564-6127, or by emailing  HYPERLINK “mailto:goodwksptnships@gmail.com” goodwksptnships@gmail.com.

“You get people connected to the same idea,” Sengstock said, “you can do anything.”