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For most of the time Yvonne Smits has lived in Abbottsfield, she’s felt that her northeastern neighbourhood has been neglected by the City. It just never seemed to get the kind of shiny new projects or upgrades that other areas seemed to. “Some people think negatively about living here, because it’s not for really rich people,” Yvonne says. “It’s for people like me.”

But her perspective changed once then-mayor Stephen Mandel hosted an event in Abbottsfield and was shocked, Yvonne says, at the state of its rec centre. A few years later, in 2014, the beautiful new Abbottsfield Recreation Centre (ARC) opened. Yvonne was so impressed by Mayor Mandel’s commitment to the project that she decided to start volunteering around Edmonton, as a kind of indirect thank you. “If they’re going to do this for us, then I can do something for them,” she remembers thinking.

Since then, Yvonne has volunteered with play- and animal-assisted therapy groups. But it was her time with Capital City Clean Up that has made the largest impact. Cleaning up garbage “seems like a pretty not important job,” she says. But as soon as she started, she saw her neighbourhood in a totally new way. Strangers started offering her ice cream on hot afternoons, and local kids with lemonade stands would hand her a cup, cheering, “You’re cleaning the neighbourhood! It’s free for you!”

What might sound like a simple job became a source of profound public engagement for Yvonne. And cleaning the rougher corners of her neighbourhood wound up connecting her to all the people around her. “It wasn’t just the bad parts that I was seeing the evidence of,” she says. “It was all of these people who are really kind, happy and respectful. It was wonderful.”

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