Teen receives scholarship, car as thanks for cleaning streets after protest

"'People should continue doing good no matter if anyone is looking."
/ Source: TODAY

In the wee hours of June 1, Antonio Gwynn Jr. started scrolling social media. On May 29, he had taken pictures of a rally protesting the death of George Floyd, but spent most of his time following the protests online. That’s when he saw video of clashes between police and protestors on Bailey Avenue in his hometown of Buffalo. He worried about all the debris strewn across the street so at about 2 a.m., he headed down to Bailey Avenue and started gathering trash.

“I just decided I wanted to go out and help clean,” Gwynn, 18, told TODAY Parents.

Antonio Gwynn Jr. has always been a self starter. That's why he decided to clean up a street in Buffalo after clashes between the police and protestors cause extra debris. Courtesy Jenna James

Gwynn had a U-Haul to move into his first apartment so he brought that with some work gloves and a couple of boxes of trash bags. He listened to the radio as he methodically cleared about 10 to 15 blocks of trash, which took about 10 hours. As he worked, Nicole Hopkins was driving past and stopped to talk to him and took a photo. Later, Kimberly LaRussa shared it on the Sweet Buffalo website and the news of his good deeds spread. But Gwynn was blissfully unaware that he had become famous.

“I didn’t know anyone was noticing,” he said. “I was just trying to clean up.”

Then the messages and offers started. Someone gave him a car. The mayor offered Gwynn a job following college. Someone else started a GoFundMe so that Gwynn, who originally planned on going to technical school to study to be a mechanic, could cover expenses.

“Everyone just started messaging me saying like how can they donate or how can they help,” Gwynn explained. “I didn’t know how to take it. It was a surprise.”

Gwynn felt especially stunned when Medaille College offered him a four-year scholarship.

“I was just happy and excited,” Gwynn said. “I plan on studying business.”

Gwynn wants to own his own businesses, a mechanic shop and cleaning and moving company plus a clothing line. The donations put his dreams within reach and a second GoFundMe has been started to get his cleaning business off the ground. Duane Thomas, a pastor and youth leader at Change Church, felt happy when so many good things started coming to Gwynn.

“I was just as in shock as Antonio was and I was excited,” the 37-year-old told TODAY Parents. “These were a lot of the things that I wanted to do for Antonio but I didn’t have the means to do at the time and I prayed for him for days. The answer was just amazing.”

The two met in a youth organization called Kappi Phi, where Thomas was a mentor, and soon after Gwynn started attending Thomas’ church. They became close, but when Gwynn’s mother, Leola Littleton, died of a heart attack two years ago, Thomas welcomed Gwynn to his family. Thomas has three sons and eight stepchildren, but never thought twice about it.

“(Littleton’s death) was a big blow to his family,” Thomas said. “I vowed to do whatever I can do. I am going to be there for him. We had our ups and downs. No families are perfect but we have always seen it through. We have always had each other’s back.”

When Antonio Gwynn Jr.'s mother died, Pastor Duane Thomas welcomed him to their family. He felt as if his prayers were answered when the Buffalo community thanked Gwynn for cleaning up a neighborhood. Courtesy of Seek First Enterprises

He wasn’t surprised when Gwynn, who he describes as generous and a self-starter, helped to clean the street without nudging.

“If Antonio sees that something needs to be done, as long as he knows how to do it, he’ll take that task on,” Thomas said. “There’s a lot of things that I needed done at the church and Antonio would make sure it was done even before I got there.”

Gwynn says he didn’t clean up Bailey Avenue for recognition but he hopes that it encourages others to contribute to their communities.

“People should continue doing good no matter if anyone is looking,” he said.

Thomas hopes people learn from Gwynn’s selflessness and challenge how they perceive Black men.

“There's a lot of people that sometimes are afraid of our African American males just because of how they look,” he said. “At the end of the day it's not the color of your skin that matters. It is what's in the inside … Antonio did not (clean) for a reward. He just did it because that’s who he is.”