A volunteering story by: Jeremy Tecktiel

At the cleanup sites, the passion for the work is contagious, and humor creates an upbeat atmosphere — something he knows is necessary for the work that they do. His team uses skits, mock motivational speeches and music to get the volunteers amped up, and sometimes they might find themselves doing a little karaoke on their DJ boat.
Teams also compete to see who can find the “best” garbage — a poker-like game in which two bowling balls tops three refrigerators and a message in a bottle trumps everything. “Picking up garbage, it’s tough, miserable and hot. We try to make it fun,” he said. At the end of the day, the volunteers head back to shore and make a human chain to bring the day’s haul onto the barge and sort it out. Close to 90% of what they recover is recycled; Thomas says the rest gets disposed of properly. For the past three years, Stephen has been with a group that has visited Memphis, Tennessee, each spring to help clean up a harbor on the Mississippi River where the waters are thick with debris. During their most recent visit, they collected more than 120,000 pounds of garbage in 14 working days. In addition to the river cleanup, Thomas has helped Living Lands and Waters with their newly launched initiative, a floating classroom barge, where his staff educates high school students and teachers about the damages of pollution on river ecosystems. And in 2007, the nonprofit implemented a program to plant 1 million trees along river shorelines to protect and restore the natural environment. The group is halfway to its goal. Thomas says the nonprofit he volunteered for has already held more than 700 cleanups on 23 rivers, but he says that he’s just getting started.

The Inspiration

When Stephen Thomas read about an organization that, in the past 15 years, has helped pull more than 67,000 tires from the Mississippi River and other waterways across the United State, as well as helped retrieve 218 washing machines, 19 tractors, 12 hot tubs, four pianos and almost 1,000 refrigerators, he knew this was an organization that he wanted to help get involved in. “I couldn’t believe what they retrieved from the river, it shocked and disgusted me and I wanted to help in whatever way possible.” “People intentionally dumped (these) in the river and also littered. Even 100 miles away, (trash) will find its way into a creek or a storm drain and into, ultimately, the Mississippi River.” “The garbage got into the water one piece at a time and that’s the only way it’s going to come out.” Living Lands and Waters started about 15 years ago and to date, about 70,000 volunteers have joined his crusade, helping him collect more than 7 million pounds of debris through his nonprofit, Living Lands & Waters. He believes that volunteers get a huge sense of accomplishment from seeing the garbage piled up at the end of the cleanup, and he considers that just as important as the amount of trash they help collect. “At the end of a day, we actually feel like we came a little bit closer to saving the world. When we see the mound of garbage, we get a great sense of pride in our world.”

The Aha! moment…

Thomas said he learned an incredible amount from his experiences. He learned firsthand truly how careless most people are. They dump their garbage when they think no on is looking and they assume it will become somebody else’s problem, when it fact, it is everyone’s problem. “The garbage you throw away doesn’t just disappear. Most people choose not to think about where it goes, and I grant that it is much easier to not think about it. Out of sight, out of mind. But this is the health of our world, our country at stake here. If everyone just became a little bit more conscientious about where they throw their garbage, we could make our world a much cleaner, and by that, a much better place.” Ultimately, Stephen says, his message is about much more than cleaning rivers. He believes his story is proof that anyone can make a difference: “If I had one thing to say, it wouldn’t even be about rivers necessarily. It would be about finding (a) cause that’s dear to you and taking action. Change is slow, like a barge or train, (but) once it builds momentum, it’s hard to stop.”

To summarize it in three words…

  • clean, pure, nature

Why should you do this

I recommend it to everyone. One day can come a little bit closer to making our world a better place.

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