On May Day, Hundreds Dig In to Keep Madison Beautiful

Mara Johnson helps organize the annual town-wide day of beautification.

One might expect to see a calculator, some pens, paperclips and important-looking papers in a banker’s office.  But, what about a wall lined with brightly colored t-shirts? 

Well, if you step into Provident Bank manager Mara Johnson’s office, that’s exactly what you’ll see. Hanging on the back wall, not far from the pens and paper, are t-shirts celebrating Madison’s May Day, an annual day of town beautification. Each t-shirt represents a different year of volunteering on this special day of clean-up.  So, it’s no surprise that Johnson’s wall is covered.  She has volunteered for May Day for the past ten years. And, this year is no exception. 

On May 7, 2011, “May Day,” Johnson will join hundreds of other volunteers to help beautify Madison. They will pick up garbage, weed, mulch and plant in areas all across town, including parks, business districts and other public areas. As the event chair, Johnson will spend the morning making sure all of the pieces are in place for a successful morning.  And one piece that'll be in place even before the morning has officially begun is the mulch. Johnson said 15 truckloads and 500 bags of mulch will be ready to spread!

Sponsored by Madison’s Downtown Development Commission (DDC), May Day has been a town-wide tradition for the past 14 years.  Volunteers of all ages and walks of life join in the effort. Some volunteer as individuals; others join as part of a group.

Over the years, Johnson said, some groups have adopted certain parts of town to spruce up on May Day.  For example, she said, Madison’s Rotary Club has adopted the Madison Public Library as their May Day project and the Girl Scouts take charge of the Museum of Early Trades and Crafts. 

Johnson said Drew University and Fairleigh Dickinson University students participate in May Day as well.  The girls’ rugby team at Drew is one group that pitches in.  Madison students from all five schools volunteer, too.  Johnson said Madison Junior School teacher Stephen Finkelstein typically brings 60 students to help with the day. 

May Day also brings unique volunteer opportunities that invite even greater participation.  Madison elementary school students submit designs for the volunteer t-shirts. Senior citizens volunteer to bake cookies for the post-clean-up celebration.  The Red Cross delivers water to thirsty volunteers.  And, sponsors donate money to help fund the t-shirts and the hanging flower baskets that grace the lampposts downtown.  Johnson said this year there will be 207 hanging flower baskets.  The newly refurbished Lincoln Place will be festooned with baskets for the first time this year. 

Johnson describes Madison’s Assistant Borough Administrator Jim Burnet as the “genius” behind May Day.  He helped to launch this special community event in 1997.  Johnson, inspired by her love of gardening, joined the effort in 2000. Though it was rainy and cold on her first May Day, there was no looking back; she was hooked. 

In the early years, Johnson said May Day activities focused on cleaning up the downtown.  Now, she said, there are 50 work areas all across town. Back then, there were about 250 volunteers.  This year there are projected to be 1,000! The event has shown extraordinary growth.  And, though there is huge potential to expand the scope of the May Day clean-up even further, Johnson said there are no plans to build out the already labor intensive effort.  She said, “We don’t want to commit to something we can’t get volunteers for.”

While expanding the effort is not in the cards, making each May Day the best it can be seems to be a priority for Johnson and the other May Day organizers.  This year, the celebration party on the steps of the Hartley Dodge Memorial will feature something new, a pizza tasting!  Once volunteers put down their tools for the day, all are invited to sample pizza from different pizza places in town. The festivities are set to begin at 11 a.m.  Johnson says stacks of pizza boxes will be on hand.  As an added bonus, a jazz band will keep toes tapping as the volunteers feast. 

Johnson said her favorite moment of May Day is riding around after the event is over and taking in the beauty of a newly manicured Madison. “It looks so clean and pristine,” she said.

And, as she’s soaking it all in, she’ll have in her grasp another colorful t-shirt to add to her collection, a sign of pride in a job well done by a community that cares. 

Do you want a t-shirt too?  If so, volunteer for this quintessential Madison experience. For information about volunteering, see the DDC website.  If you decide last minute that you want to take part, don’t worry.  Simply show up at Hartley Dodge at 8 a.m. on May 7 and get ready to dig in.   

Colleen Bohensky April 29, 2011 at 12:53 PM
We'll be there with the TJS Daisy troop! Our first year volunteering.
John Marelli April 29, 2011 at 05:00 PM
Great article, Chris. You are a pleasant and welcomed addition to the Madison Patch staff.


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