Clean Our Rez Unsung heroes make the reservation a source of pride

Led by Pete Kalama (left), the Clean Our Rez crew can handle just about any job that comes their way.

If awards were given out to unsung heroes of the Puyallup Reservation, the Clean Our Rez (COR) crew would be at the top of the list. Going wherever they are called, COR workers do it all – from cleaning up homeless encampments and Puyallup River pollution, to mowing lawns and chopping wood for elders’ sweats…and much more.

“We’re still Clean Our Rez, but we’re taking on a lot of new stuff, like property management, because those that don’t have (a maintenance crew) call us,” COR Supervisor Pete Kalama said. Whether it’s moving desks at the Administration Building, cleaning out abandoned houses or heading up community efforts to clean up neighborhoods (like what’s coming soon to Columbia Avenue), Pete and his team are there for any tribal member or department that calls upon them.

“I really like this job. I’m not always in one spot and that’s what I like about it,” Pete said. “One day we’re picking up garbage and the next minute we’re in an office helping to move desks.”

Established in 2016, an achievement that COR is most proud of to date is having cleaned up the Puyallup River and its banks from Clarks Creek Bridge to the mouth of the river. Last year, over a three-week period the crew removed more than 70,000 pounds of trash generated by an extensive homeless encampment that was also cleared out with help from the Puyallup Tribal Police and the Tacoma Police Department, both of which work closely with COR. Pete Kalama said that law enforcement treat the homeless respectfully as camps are cleared, and local police officers also help the COR staff pinpoint areas that need their attention.

“We patrol the river from Fred Meyer (in Puyallup) all the way to the mouth, and we have a map of the reservation too and pretty much ride the whole area,” Pete said, and area residents are noticing. “We see a lot of people exercising (at the river) now and walking their dogs. That’s good. Before, you didn’t even want to walk around down there because there were needles, beer cans and garbage. We keep up with it too – find out that someone dumped garbage and we’ll clean it up.”

With COR having grown so successfully since its beginnings, the woman who founded it couldn’t be more pleased. Gina LaPointe is director of the Tribe’s Workforce Development Department and proposed the program to Tribal Council. With Council’s full approval, Gina set out to hire the very first crew of Puyallup tribal members. As some of those working with COR come from backgrounds of addiction and/or incarceration, the program helps them get back on their feet and at some point they move on to new forms of employment when ready, with Gina’s department assisting them. Some COR crew members join up to formally enter the workforce and learn job skills, again with help from Workforce Development to find them employment that suits them best.

“I was driving to work across the Puyallup River bridge and I was looking down at our river and saw all these homeless camps and garbage on our river,” Gina said of what led her to organize COR. “For my father, Arnold Williams, that (the river and fishing) was his livelihood and I have so much love and respect for all of our fishermen. I said we need to clean it up ourselves – we can’t wait for someone else to do it.”

Pete Kalama has been with COR since the beginning and worked his way up to supervisor, a position that suits him perfectly. Pete brings with him his own set of skills both in knowing how to operate big machinery, like the backhoe and dump truck, and in his demeanor as a really nice guy who’s easy to talk to and genuinely cares for his fellow COR members. On the job, he’s the boss – taking charge and holding each crew member accountable.

“My job is to teach people how to work – build their work ethic,” as Pete explained. He monitors them and makes sure they come to work on time and does what he needs to get them ready to take on a permanent job – including helping them to stay clean and sober by talking to COR crew members who may be going through a rough patch in their lives and helping them as best he can even if that means just being there to listen.

“I talk to them as much as I can because they have their own personal issues. They call me after work, or I’ll talk to them in the morning. Some of my workers go through a lot, coming out of treatment or jail,” Pete said, himself celebrating seven years of being drug and alcohol free.

“He’s just that type of person – a perfect fit as supervisor for COR,” Gina LaPointe said. “He’s always shown leadership – encouraging his staff and making sure that they know what needs to be done and that they’re being safe. He’s always available to them – even when they have personal issues, he’s there to talk with them.”

The seven crew members work hard, too, as their job is very labor intensive and oftentimes involves cleaning up hazardous materials like human waste and hypodermic needles, which requires special training.

“Sometimes these guys don’t even get a break. Their break is when they’re driving,” Pete said.

Another big job was to clean up the area around the Tribe’s riverboat, which resulted in creating space that Toys for Tots now uses as storage. More examples of COR’s work show just how busy the workers are: they set up and take down the tents and bleachers for the annual powwow, and dispose of all the garbage that collects over the weekend as well; they’ll start being the clean-up crew at Fireworks Alley this summer; they’re helping maintain the Culture Department’s property at the former dairy farm and getting ready to do a major makeover of the old marina in preparation for this summer’s Power Paddle to Puyallup Canoe Journey; they help maintain the grounds at the Youth Center and House of Respect, Grandview and Northeast Longhouse Apartments; help out at the annual Call to Haul…the list goes on.

“I really appreciate the crew and all their hard work,” Gina LaPointe said. “They take a lot of pride in their work – they respect their reservation and they want to keep it clean too. It’s pride – we all live here and this is our home and you want your home to be clean. And they don’t complain – they just do it. That’s what I like about them.”

Any Puyallup tribal member interested in joining up with Clean Our Rez should contact Gina at (253) 573-7857 or email Gina.lapointe@puyalluptribe.com.