After receiving comments and suggestions from local residents in 2019, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, adopted the “Pedestrian Master Plan.” Thus the Snow Buddies program had its beginning.
One need stated by residents was assistance with snow on sidewalks during the wintertime. Improved abatement of snow on sidewalks became one of several recommendations made in the master plan. The city used its innovation program to combine various departments to research problems and come up with creative solutions to the problems expressed.
April Wing, Cedar Rapids’ program manager, stated, “Responding to recommendations in the Pedestrian Master Plan, an innovation team recommended policy revisions for the city’s ordinance for clearing snow and ice from sidewalks. One of the revisions was reducing the timeframe for property owners to clear snow from 48 to 24 hours. The purpose of the timeframe reduction — amongst other changes made to the ordinance — was to create safer, accessible routes for members of our community, including kids walking to school, residents walking to the store or bus stop and people with disabilities who use mobility devices.”
With the innovation team’s recommendations in mind, the city did a root cause analysis to discover any issues residents may face regarding snow removal. Staff members then realized that one of the greatest barriers to effective snow removal in town was residents who did not have the appropriate resources for quick and proper snow removal.
As Wing mentioned, the city realized “seniors or residents with disabilities and low income may not be able to hire the services they need to ensure snow removal compliance with the updated code. Staff realized there may be an opportunity to create a volunteer program to assist these residents.”
The city then formed another innovation team to come up with viable options for these residents who may need assistance with snow removal. Programs used by other cities were reviewed, and Cedar Rapids took various aspects from each of the other programs it encountered in order to create a program that would fit its community the best.
Several divisions were included on the innovation team creating and implementing the Snow Buddies program. These divisions included the community development department, solid waste and recycling division, which enforces sidewalk snow removal ordinances, the city manager’s office and information technology.
According to Wing, “Our community service coordinator, Stephanie Schrader, from community development was instrumental in the creation and execution of the program. We worked with our information technology department to create applications that would map the locations of both the volunteers and the residents to help with the matching process.”
The Snow Buddies program then became a reality. Wing mentioned, “We started to advertise the need for volunteers first because that would dictate how many client matches we could make this year. After a month, we received roughly 35 volunteer applications. We then opened the program to residents to apply to be matched with a ‘snow hero,’ or volunteer. There was a lot of interest in the program. The sign-up process was closed in two days due to the limited number of volunteers we had. We continue to solicit program volunteer applications for the current and future program years.”
All volunteers, or snow heroes, received a volunteer packet explaining the process and expectations of those volunteering in the Snow Buddies program.
“We require all volunteers to sign off on a liability waiver as well as pass a background check,” Wing emphasized. “Once the volunteers cleared the background check, we began to match them up with a snow buddy or more. Some volunteers asked to be matched with two or three residents. After we match a volunteer with a resident, we send the volunteer the resident’s name, address and contact information and ensure they can commit to the resident(s) we matched them up with. Once they confirm, we contact the snow buddy to notify them that they have been matched with a volunteer snow hero and give them their name and contact information of the volunteer.”
In order to qualify for a snow buddy, a resident must be a senior or someone with a mobility disability. Applicants must reside in Cedar Rapids, be 65 year of age or older and/or have a disability and qualify under the income guidelines. To qualify, a single-person household can earn up to $31,300 a year and a two-person household can earn up to $38,800 a year to remain eligible.
For residents they could not match with a snow hero, the city called or emailed residents to let them know it could not match them this year.
Program promotion and the collection of volunteer applications began in September 2021. By the end of November, all snow heroes who consented and cleared background checks were matched with snow buddies.
“Residents were matched with volunteers based on a first come, first served basis, but it was also dependent on proximity,” Wing explained. “Quite a few volunteers specified they wanted to be matched with residents within a few blocks of where they live. Unfortunately, we had several volunteers who signed up in one part of the city where most of our need was in another part. Fortunately, we did have some volunteers who said they were willing to travel further than their own neighborhood or throughout the city.”
However, Cedar Rapids has not used its Snow Buddies program yet. Volunteers are asked to shovel if there are 2 inches or more of snow, and as of this interview, there had not been any substantial snowfall in Cedar Rapids.
Wing said, “We are unable to evaluate the effectiveness as far as volunteer snow removal goes; however, we have learned several lessons with the sign-up and matching process.
“Several residents and volunteers who signed up to participate in the program expressed their gratitude to the city for creating a program like this,” Wing continued. “At the end of season, we will evaluate this pilot year in totality and decided if it is feasible to continue for next year. If we do decide to continue the program, we will make any identified modifications needed to improve the program. An example of some changes we would likely make is starting the volunteer solicitation process in the beginning of August; though it will be hard because no one is thinking of snow at this time of year. When promoting the program, we would identify the areas within the city that have the highest need and we would hold a volunteer orientation in person so we can get their paperwork upfront and answer questions, program needs and expectations as a group.” The number of participants in the Snow Buddies program is limited purely by the number of snow heroes that volunteer. This year a total of 20 snow hero volunteers were matched with 29 residents in the Snow Buddies program. There are also four residents serving as backup volunteers in case one of the snow heroes are sick or out of town and unable to assist their snow buddy.