Brittany Woods becoming the model of community engagement in Gloucester Township and beyond

Carolyn Grace and Shirley Johnson started by picking up trash, now they have a following, a name and soon a nonprofit

Carolyn Grace and Shirley Johnson of Brittany Woods

At quick glance, while passing the numerous neighborhoods in Gloucester Township one might not detect many differences. Aspen Woods, Forrest Woods, these names are visible on signs at the mouth of certain streets but other than an arrangement of letters, the neighborhoods appear the same.

However, within these township pockets reside people. And, though at times unnoticed, many of these people are making changes to where they live, bettering their spots in the world for themselves and their neighbors.

Two and a half years ago, Carolyn Grace and Shirley Johnson of Brittany Woods realized their neighborhood’s identity was shattered. Plastic bottles and broken glass littered the streets, and the happy voices of children on playgrounds were a thing of the past.

Unhappy at their neighborhood’s appearance, these two women who met at a Gloucester Township Council meeting decided Sunday mornings were for coffee and trash pick-up.

“You can’t just go in your house and think, ‘That’s it. It’s all about me.’ You have to go outside and support your community. Your community is an extension of you,” said Grace, a retired social worker.

After six months of Sunday cleanups, Grace and Johnson noticed their neighborhood of tightly packed townhouses was cleaner and they had gained a small following.

“It’s the children,” Johnson said, “They are the backbone of this. They are the ones that keep it going.”

The two woman maintain that while they and a handful of adults in the beginning got this started it is the children who deserve a lot of credit.

Street signs and T-shirts now boast the name “Brittany Woods Community Action Group” (BWCAG) with an accompanying slogan “Together ‘we’ are better.”

Both woman said the most important letter in that acronym is “A.” “We take action,” Grace said.

The acronym is one that thousands have undoubtedly seen as this group has gained the attention of multiple large-market media outlets and the support of township government and services, including the police department.

In a release issued by the township, Mayor David Mayer said, “This particular development was one of the shining stars in Gloucester Township back in its heyday, but through the ’80s a lot of absentee landlords bought properties here so the neighborhood went through a decline.”

The cleanup efforts have grown from picking up trash to fashioning curbs with uniform mailboxes, painting fences and, Johnson’s most prized accomplishment, a new playground for kids.

“I call them my kids,” Johnson said, reflecting on times watching children play since the $100,000 Brittany Woods Children’s Park opened in October. The park is in a way a gift for the children’s involvement picking up trash, leaves and spray painting fences, Johnson explained.

During the first clean-up event, Johnson said 20 children participated, at the second 31 were present.

“I think the children are engaged because we are engaged. When they see a more approachable adult, they are more likely to sit and listen and talk,” she said.

Grace added, “Children want to do good.”

Two years ago, Brittany Woods, by way of absentee landlords and a dissolved sense of community, contained 35 vacant homes, according to Grace and Johnson. Now, they say that number is down to two.

“When you keep cleaning your community, somebody who wants to buy a house, they say “Hey, this is a good neighborhood.’ I think by cleaning it up first, that is what calls for buying activity,” Grace said.

Multiple businesses have chipped in to help BWCAG with its community efforts, including Lowe’s, which sold bulk mailboxes at a discounted price.

“What little things we can do within our means, we do. What we can’t do we reach to [township] council and public works,” Grace said, adding that local government has been nothing but responsive to their efforts.

BWCAG is in the process of becoming a nonprofit as they continue to clean their community and host events such as Toys for Tots and the full backpack program — providing meals for underprivileged children in the community.

For more information on the group, visit its Facebook page: The Brittany Woods Community Action Group.