What I am doing is cleaning up America’s rivers, one river and one piece at a time. When I say one piece at a time, I mean one piece of garbage at a time. It sounds simple, but I am not talking about just pop cans and tennis balls. I am talking about thousands upon thousands of 55-gallon barrels and thousands and thousands of tires, cars, trucks, tops of school buses, appliances, barges, tugboats-you name it. In fact, we’ve picked up over 800 tons of this garbage from the Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio rivers.
I got interested in cleaning rivers from an early age. Growing up, my parents’ house was literally 10 feet away from the Mississippi River. So the river was a backyard to me. And my jobs have been on the rivers. I spent six years as a commercial shell diver, and I worked as a barge hand for a time on the Illinois River. I also spent time as a commercial fisherman. During these years, I spent a lot of time on the islands of the Mississippi River and got disgusted at the amount of garbage that was out there. So I decided to get a project together to clean it up.
I was 17 when I first tried to get this project going. The first place I went looking for assistance was the state government, but all I got was the run around.
So I changed my approach and sought corporate sponsorship. To make a long story short, I worked out a deal with Alcoa in 1997 that carried one condition-they gave me $8,400 and required me to raise the rest of the money on my own. With that small seed grant, I started the Mississippi River Beautification and Restoration Project. I cleaned up 100 miles of shoreline and recycled some 45,000 pounds of debris that year.
In 1998, I realized that I needed to set up a nonprofit to continue the work, so Living Lands and Waters was established to raise funds for the project. That year, working with a small crew, we set our sights on cleaning up a 435-mile stretch of the Mississippi River, which was unheard of, but I figured best to set my sights high, let nothing be a failure, and go do it as best as I could.
Since 1998, the project has taken off. With corporate support from Alcoa and Anheuser-Busch in particular, we’ve expanded our clean up projects to include the Illinois and Ohio rivers. We’ve also added the Adopt-A-Mile program, in which communities adopt a single mile of river and make a commitment to clean it of refuse once or twice a year.
Today we have four barges, including one with a floating classroom. There is no other river clean-up operation like it in the world. We not only use our work boats to pick up garbage as a crew, but we also work to get all of the riverbank communities involved.
For instance, we recently had a clean up in Minneapolis using that city’s Koch employees in addition to volunteers from 51 other organizations and companies. In 7 days we filled three barges with 92 tons of junk. There were 1,100 people working the river that week. You can get people involved through garbage because it’s hands-on, and the people feel a stake in the river. I think it’s working really well.
Results, not rhetoric. Solid results. Every barrel we take out of there is our statement to the river’s people. It energizes us and them without saying a word. I like that because I think there is too much rhetoric these days.
Another motto: Work with, and not against. We are apolitical. I want to get everybody on board-the general public, organizations, whoever.
The only two things we promote are hard work and a cleaner river, and people seem to accept this. For this reason, we shift project titles according to the region we’re in. If we are on the Ohio River, the title is the Ohio River Beautification and Restoration Project; if we are on the Mississippi River, it’s the Mississippi River Beautification and Restoration Project. You want people to say, “Wow, they are cleaning up in my town, on our river.”
If there is one piece of advice I can give funders, it’s to be aware that some of the best ideas out there are with people who don’t necessarily have the résumé to prove their worth-just like me when I started. I encourage you to look at the younger people. I can almost guarantee that if the person is younger, the work will be well received. The media especially are looking for something positive to report on. So consider giving somebody young a break, even if it is a small amount of money.
Also, seriously consider funding some of the smaller, less-well-known organizations, because a lot of them are highly energized and only lack the resources to follow through.
The prospects for the future are bright. Thanks to media coverage, our story is being told the world over. I recently was in Johannesburg, South Africa, for the World Summit on Sustainable Environments, where we shared information on river clean up with people from around the world.
Funders in general can get more initiatives like mine going without government help. I can’t say it’s easy, but dedicated people can get it done.
— Chad Pregracke, President, Living Land and Waters