A community-led project might start off with a lot of enthusiasm, big plans and plenty of volunteers signed up. Perhaps there just aren’t enough shovels and wheelbarrows for all the eager helpers.
That’s where the Keep Austin Beautiful tool lending library can come in handy. Called the Tool Shack, the program was started in 2005 and offers free use of an array of tools "for the purpose of a community-driven beautification, improvement and/or maintenance projects," according to the Keep Austin Beautiful website, keepaustinbeautiful.org.
More than 530 tools are available, says Keith Sears, Keep Austin Beautiful volunteer coordinator, and have been used in the last fiscal year for 182 community projects. Borrowers for projects include groups such as community gardens, nonprofit groups and Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts troops. For example, he says, a school group might put in an herb garden and use the tools.
Borrowers must be using the tools for a project that "benefits the community in anything that’s in a public space, that can be used by the public," Sears says, adding that the program is not for use on private property projects.
The program has "engaged almost 9,000 volunteers throughout the city of Austin and Travis County," he says. (Though borrowers do not have to be residents of Austin or Travis County residents, he says.)
The tools are stored in organized rows in a roughly 10-foot-by-25-foot shed at the Keep Austin Beautiful offices at 55 N. Interstate 35. Groups borrowing tools must pick them up there on weekdays by appointment.
Stepping in the shed is like visiting a very generous neighbor’s well-stocked garage.
Inside the shed are neat arrangements of pitchforks, spades and more. Milk crates contain smaller hand tools, such as hand cultivators and hammers. The website offers a photo inventory that pictures each tool and describes its use. For example, it says, a hand trencher is "used to cut through soft soil to create a trench. It is perfect for creating a small channel for water flow." What’s a Texas toothpick? It’s "perfect for shattering tough limestone. It is a heavy metal bar that is meant to simply be dropped (with caution!) onto solid rock surfaces."
The program also offers items for different types of projects and needs. The inventory includes sledgehammers, paint rollers and levels. Are the volunteers going to get thirsty? Water coolers are available. Even items such as gloves can be borrowed.
Some tools might be less common. "We carry a lot of specialty tools for our programming," such as weed wrenches for invasive plant removals, says Myrriah Gossett, the organization’s director of community engagement.
The guidelines for using the tools include signing an agreement to "store the tools in a secure location protected from the weather," and be responsible for missing or damaged tools (though regular wear and tear is expected).
In general, though, Gossett says, "People are really honest when they break something."
Those interested in using the program are asked to read the online guidelines and fill out a request form at least two weeks in advance of the project. Tools can be reserved up to six months in advance, and the earlier the better, Sears says.
Two of the most commonly requested tools are shovels and steel rakes, Sears says; as well, the wheelbarrows "are ones you definitely want to reserve in advance."
Keep Austin Beautiful partners with the nonprofit Little Helping Hands to repaint the tools twice a year, Sears says. That helps to identify which tools belong to the organization, and pointing out a multicolored shovel handle with butterflies painted on it, Gossett says, "We let the kids have fun painting."
Items are typically kept for about one week; with school resuming, August and September are among the busier times for the lending program, Sears says. "Usually the summers are good times to check out," Sears says, because projects generally aren’t scheduled during the hotter months.
As for larger projects that might take multiple weekends, Gossett says, "We try to be flexible."
Sears recommends that people using the larger tools come get them in a bigger-size vehicle such as a pickup truck, although he says, "We’ve actually fit a wheelbarrow in a small four-door car."
The Tool Shack program is considered a success. Gossett says, "When you walk in here in the spring, and the shed is empty, then you know people are using it, and it feels successful."