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A teen worked alone to clean Buffalo’s streets after unrest. People offered him a car and college tuition.

Antonio Gwynn Jr., right, who swept Buffalo streets alone after the recent unrest, with Duane Thomas, who took Gwynn in after Gwynn's mother died two years ago. (Seek First Enterprises)

Antonio Gwynn Jr., 18, marched for hours in downtown Buffalo to protest the killing of George Floyd. Tired, he went home to catch some sleep, then watch videos of the nationwide protests on YouTube.

Gwynn, a high school senior, was shocked the next day, May 30, to see his hometown’s peaceful streets had turned violent after he left, with a confrontation between protesters and U.S. marshals in front of the federal courthouse, windows smashed at downtown businesses, and protesters reporting that they had been hit by police rubber bullets.

“I was sad to watch all of that. There was a huge mess downtown,” said Gwynn. “I thought, ‘I should go out there and clean it all up.’"

Gwynn had rented a small U-Haul truck several days earlier to move some of his belongings into a house he had just rented from his aunt. At 2 a.m. on June 1, he threw a broom, a dustpan and two large boxes of garbage bags into the back of the truck and headed to Bailey Avenue, where much of the damage had happened.

“I decided to start at one end and make my way down the street,” he said. “It was pretty quiet, and I thought maybe I could finish cleaning it before people started going to work.”

Sweeping up broken glass, discarded protest signs and litter for about 17 blocks, Gwynn worked through the morning until almost noon, filling nearly two dozen trash bags, most of which he took home and set on his curb in time for his neighborhood's garbage pickup. A few hours later, he was stunned to learn that his good deed was all over Facebook, he said.

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“When I woke up and saw I was getting all these texts and tags thanking me, I couldn’t believe it,” said Gwynn. “It was the biggest surprise ever.”

Buffalo resident Nicole Hopkins had spotted Gwynn hard at work early that morning, snapped a few pictures in admiration, then put them on her Facebook page with a message about her observations:

“I was driving down Bailey on my way to the store after the riots [and] I observed a young man sweeping up piles of garbage,” wrote Hopkins. “I took some pictures, looped around, and asked who he was working for. He informed me he rented a truck and was doing this out of the kindness of his own heart.

“After speaking with him more in depth, I learned he is 18, a soon to be graduate of Hutch Tech, with aspirations of attending college,” added Hopkins, who had asked for Gwynn's name. “If we can pay for his books, a Mac Book, or at least one semester of college for this brave young man, his generosity and kindness will be the change we wish to see in the world."

Hopkins’s post was quickly picked up by Kimberly LaRussa, whose Sweet Buffalo Facebook page highlights people who do good in the community. From there, it took off.

Gwynn's voice mail box and Facebook page were suddenly filled with notes from well-wishers in Buffalo and beyond, commending him for cleaning up downtown before anyone else could get to it. And there were generous offers, too.

When one man learned that Gwynn didn’t have a car, he offered up his 2004 Ford Mustang. Another person offered to insure it, and several others set up a GoFundMe account that brought in more than $5,800 to help Gwynn pay some of his expenses while living on his own for the first time. The fundraiser surpassed its goal of $5,000 and is no longer active.

Probably the biggest surprise, said Gwynn, was a call from Medaille College in Buffalo. When administrators heard on the local news that he hoped one day to start his own auto repair shop and cleaning company, they presented Gwynn with a four-year scholarship so that he could begin business classes this fall.

“Community, integrity, curiosity and excellence are Medaille’s guiding core values, and Antonio Gwynn demonstrated all four in his initiative to clean up our city,” said Medaille president Ken Macur. “We would be honored to welcome him to our Medaille family."

“It was unbelievable. I didn’t do this for any attention,” said Gwynn, who will receive his high school diploma this month and has accepted the scholarship. “I just didn’t want people to have to drive through all that trash on the street.”

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But someone who knows Gwynn very well says there is an additional reason he chose to push a broom for nearly 10 hours up and down Bailey Avenue.

Two years ago, Gwynn and his younger sister, Aaliyah, 17, suddenly lost their mother, Leola Littleton, to a heart attack, said Duane Thomas, 37, a pastor and youth leader at the Change Church, where the family attended services.

Aaliyah went to live with her grandmother, and because Gwynn’s father is not involved in his life, Thomas offered to take in the teen on the condition that he do the dishes and his homework, he said.

“Our church used to be on Bailey Avenue, right across the street where all of the mayhem went down,” said Thomas. “So I know that Antonio was thinking of that. He was grateful to have a place to live, and now he wanted to look after somebody else. That’s just the kind of kid he is. He’s always been a peaceful person, wanting to see that others are taken care of.”

Gwynn had recently moved out to rent a place from his aunt and brought Aaliyah to live with him, said Thomas, 37. He was planning to find a job and go to a trade school this fall, he said, when the offers came pouring in.

“It couldn’t happen to a nicer kid,” said Thomas. “He’s always dreamed of opening his own cleaning business someday, so I’ve tried to let him know the different things he needs to do to make that happen. I always tried to pour into him as much as I could."

Thomas, who has three children and eight stepchildren, said he also considers Gwynn to be a member of his family.

“I call him ‘son,’ and he calls me ‘pop,’” he said. “I was so proud when I heard he was out there by himself, cleaning up the city. It’s amazing. He just kept on going until he got the job done.”

With Buffalo making headlines for an incident on June 4 in which a police officer pushed a 75-year-old protester to the ground, Gwynn said he’s glad he could do something positive for his city.

“Violence is pointless. It doesn’t help anything, and it doesn’t change anything,” he said. “I was happy to help out, and I’m really surprised by the attention. I’m just really grateful for everybody’s support.”

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