Dressed all in white, the brim of his hat keeping sun from his eyes, Mike Birrer stoops to pick up a pile of raked tree debris outside Mansfeld Middle School.
It’s monsoon season, and that means weeds abound.
He works alongside about 40 students from Pusch Ridge Christian Academy. More than 100 additional volunteers, some University of Arizona students, weed, trim trees and pick up trash at multiple sites around central Tucson.
That cleanup is one of the many that Birrer, 58, has coordinated around the city in the last five years. He can’t keep Tucson clean on his own.
Through his grassroots movement, Serve Tucson, he mobilizes volunteers to beautify Tucson one weed or downed tree limb at a time. They might also paint a mural or two.
It’s simple — work anyone can do.
Birrer himself has no problem stopping his car to sweep glass or pick up anything that might cause a car or bike to crash.
He totes tools and trash bags in his car for moments such as these.
He sees too much beauty in Tucson to let weeds or trash take over.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEAUTY
St. Louis has the Gateway Arch and New York City has Times Square.
In Birrer’s eyes, Tucson’s defining characteristic is its natural beauty.
“Its identity is beautiful, but it’s a mess,” Birrer says. “And I can do something about that.”
The cleanup projects Birrer organizes focus on schools and gateway streets — think Speedway or Park Avenue. These are central locations that influence impressions of Tucson.
During the school year, Birrer guesses he coordinates a cleanup every two weeks. For the last three years, he and other volunteers have cleaned the Cyclovia Tucson route prior to the event. In between, he’s tending to smaller messes on his own time.
He and Steven Reff, a recently retired University of Arizona economics professor, mowed weeds on Speedway in advance of Aug. 18 for volunteers to rake and bag. The two men connected when Birrer saw Reff leading a group of students in his regular cleanup of the boulevard.
Birrer is all about making connections and working together.
What he does supplements or supports what the city and other organizations can do, Reff says.
“The weeds, probably, along Speedway would be 2 to 3 feet high,” without Birrer, Reff says. “It would look like one of the lousiest streets in America.”
And that just won’t do.
FINDING HIS IDENTITY IN TUCSON
Birrer didn’t always want to work.
As a high school graduate, he loathed his first week on the night shift at Six Flags St. Louis, then called Six Flags Over Mid-America.
A switch flipped when he was transferred to the day shift, from dark to light. He decided to work hard, cleaning bathrooms and sweeping crumbs.
“I’m not sure what changed my attitude,” he says. “But in my life I’ve had a few of those moments where I’m not sure where it came from, because it didn’t make sense for me to suddenly want to work hard.”
Several years later, as an industrial engineering graduate from the University of Missouri, Birrer “became this nature boy spiritual seeker and wandered out West.” He came to Tucson in 1982, where he started working in the hospitality business.
“Serving fit me,” he says. “I enjoyed being around people and working physically.”
His spiritual quest resulted in a conversion to Christianity, and he ended up in Mexico, where he taught English and Spanish and worked as a missionary for six years. The death of his father and the final years of his mother’s life drew him back to St. Louis.
He returned to Tucson 10 years ago, in his 40s, pondering the direction of his life.
That’s when he discovered he is a “macro forest thinker” not a “micro tree thinker.”
If Tucson is the forest, and a school or street is a tree, Birrer wants to impact the entire forest, not just a cluster of trees.
He envisions Saturday work days in the style of the downtown Meet Me at Maynards walks — every week people gather. They know it’s happening. It’s a standing date at multiple sites around the city.
For now, he is focusing on organizing bigger community cleanups each month. He expects at least 200 volunteers for a cleanup of three schools on Saturday, Sept. 10.
“People just want to clean up messes, and it’s so simple,” he says. “They don’t want to get complicated. They don’t want to get trained to be a volunteer or get fingerprinted. They just want to work.”
Birrer’s main volunteers are university students and church youth groups. Schools are some of the main sites Serve Tucson helps.
Megan Forecki, the assistant director for services for student governance and programs at the University of Arizona, connects some incoming freshmen with Serve Tucson during an extended orientation.
“For a lot of our college students it’s, ‘I don’t want to pick up trash,’ but when Mike talks about his vision, you get excited just hearing him speak about it,” she says.
Involving young people helps them identify not just as students but as members of a community that cares.
“We’re aiming, especially, at children and youth because that’s our future,” Birrer says. “They are the future plants and trees of the forest, so we have to pour into them.”
In the early days, Tucson Clean & Beautiful Inc. loaned Birrer tools. Since then, donors have given tools and even vehicles.
Now, “Mike is the guy. When you need people to show up and a lot of tools, he is the guy you call,” says Seth Aleshire, the principal at Pueblo Gardens Pre K-8 School.
Volunteers with Serve Tucson have helped the school build a community garden and paint its cafeteria, along with other campus projects, in the last three years.
“You can have this vision that this is what is best for the school, but getting human capital is always difficult,” Aleshire says.
He doubts the school could have completed those projects so quickly without help. Seeing volunteers from outside the neighborhood spend time sprucing up a school communicates to kids that they are valuable.
“The schools are having budget issues, and the schools need to look nice,” Birrer says. “The kids are the future and they need that atmosphere and environment of hope.”
For Birrer, it comes back to the forest — his city vision.
“The forest has an atmosphere,” he says. “There is this idea that if we can change the atmosphere of the city, we can affect everything.”
So he’ll pull weeds and trim trees. His faith in God and in Tucson keeps him motivated.
“I just believe something great is happening and will continue to happen,” he says. “My dream is that we will have a story, a city story, that would encourage other cities to do not the same thing but use similar ideas, to seek God, pray and get specific things to do that will really change the city.”