PARKCHESTER — If the recent rebirth of a stretch of Virginia Avenue began on a particular day, it might be the one a few years ago when Nilka Martell was laid off from her job.
That’s when the single mother of two teenagers, who lives in the same apartment building on Virginia and Newbold avenues where she was born and raised, resolved to use her new free time to rally her neighbors to spruce up their street.
Three years and hundreds of sweaty hours later, the block-beautification group has recruited dozens of mostly young volunteers, raised hundreds of dollars and set its sights on potential environmental projects across The Bronx.
“It wasn’t until I got laid off,” Martell said, “that a light bulb went off and I thought: I can do more.”
After Martell lost her paralegal job in late 2010, she began volunteering at park cleanups. But soon she decided that there was plenty to improve right outside her door.
So the following spring, Martell, her son and daughter and their neighbors began to pull weeds and plant flowers on the sidewalk along Newbold Avenue, a short dead-end street off Virginia Avenue, just steps from the Parkchester 6 Train station.
Before long, dozens of neighborhood children and parents were joining in cleanup days where they would pick up trash, build tree guards, paint fences, spread mulch and water the greenery. They named their new group G.I.V.E. — Getting Involved, Virginia Avenue Efforts.
G.I.V.E. soon won neighborhood-improvement grants from the Citizens Committee for New York and persuaded city agencies to replace the block’s street signs, provide mulch and remove graffiti.
Martell found that if she could convince her neighbors of their duty — and power — to improve their street, then they would gladly pitch in.
“I think we often have a mentality in urban settings that someone else will take care of it,” she said. “But we live here. If you want something to change, you have to get up and do it.”
Her children’s high school friends and other neighborhood young people became some of the most eager volunteers, stopping by Martell’s apartment after school to borrow work gloves and watering cans.
“At first it was hard work, but then it was actually fun,” said Kashawn Wright, 16. “It beats being inside and playing video games.”
Eventually, the group moved beyond the neighborhood, adopting park trees, tidying up litter-strewn public stairs and even forming the group Friends of Starlight Park. Martell also takes the teens to open mic nights, museum exhibits and Bronx historical events.
Though she has since found a new paralegal job, Martell still spends much personal time and money on G.I.V.E., paying for work supplies, food for events and even a $600 group website.
To help cover the costs of their next project — new tree guards, “Curb Your Dog” signs and a community barbecue along Virginia Avenue — Martell organized an online fundraiser that has so far netted more than $1,900.
Meanwhile, the group is scoping out other outdoor South Bronx sites they can beautify.
Eventually, Martell hopes to turn G.I.V.E. into a nonprofit with green volunteer and job-training programs for young people, like those who have cultivated the green spaces along their avenue.
“We gave them a purpose,” Martell said.