Over the last few years, I have really wanted to do something–really, do anything that would be beneficial to others and/or our environment.
Recently, I’ve thought about the several times in my life that I have participated in a group effort to pick up trash on the side of the road (with my cross-country team) or at a beach (with the Shedd Aquarium). Throughout this fall, I’ve had a growing awareness of a number of issues prevalent in the town around me–one of them being trash. I know this is a country-wide, or really a worldwide issue that I can’t do much about on my own, but what I do know for sure, is that I can do something about things that are all around me.
Last Spring, my friend, Caleb, suggested we clean up the yard around our newly rented home. After several of my housemates and I put in only an hours work, we could really tell the difference. There had been tons of broken glass and garbage embedded into our yard as a result of the three-year condemnation of the house’s property (garage in the backyard was deemed unsafe). By no means is our house and yard beautiful, but after just a short amount of effort, it is a little bit safer and neater. In the months following, I thought to myself, why can’t this type of work spread out from my yard and into the streets, or even the greater Kalamazoo area. It was after this thought that the cheesy “Clean Kalamazoo” came to mind. And it is with this constant phrase playing in my head that the following took place.
Just at the bottom of Kalamazoo College’s campus, across the train tracks, and over a little stream, there is a nice little park area before you come to the bustling Stadium Drive. It’s not really a park per se–you know, the kind where you’d wanna have a picnic–but it does have some open grass areas, some benches, and a piece of artwork that looks like a fancy water treatment structure. Unfortunately, for most people, when this area is traversed, it is done swiftly. Especially at night. Just two years ago, a man (presumably a homeless man) was found dead right near this area and additionally, drunk and confrontational people will often frequent this area with a few muggings taking place in the last year. It seems the benches invite people who have no place to go. On the far side of this triangular park-like area is the well-known place for students and community members to get their booze.
It is the adjacent aspects of this park that make it not so park-like. Walk through the grass and you will find empty bottles of 5 O’Clock Vodka, beer bottles, cigarette packs, shopping bags, and soggy newspapers among many other things. What I am describing here is really a greater social issue that of course needs a solution, but I’ll leave that to those involved in politics for now. I saw this and wondered what simple thing could be done to make this area just a little bit better. As I have already made this obvious, I figured it would be cool to maybe wrangle up a few willing friends and head over to pick up a little bit.
Just this morning, I decided I would head up to this park to do get a feel for things; to see if there is a need and if this seemed like a doable project. When I got to the park it wasn’t hard to find garbage. As I began to scrounge around, finding all sorts of things down in the mud by the stream between the train tracks and the park, I was running through possible ideas in my head for ways I could make this work. It was then I realized an important fact– I’m in Michigan! Now, the relevance of this is something I’ve only recently come to appreciate: Michigan requires everyone purchasing alcohol or carbonated sodas to pay 10 cents per bottle/can purchased, and upon the return of these bottles/cans, you can be reimbursed for your deposit.
As a student having spent almost three years in Kalamazoo, I have been witness to hundreds of people rummaging through garbage cans and recycling bins to find the returnable bottles and cans that many people lazily do not return. According to a man I talked with today in the park, you can get in trouble from most places for picking through their garbage. Here I was with one bag of garbage, and one bag of returnable bottles and cans, and I thought to myself–this could be a way to make this more dynamic than just picking up trash.
Now, I must admit that when I dream, I dream big. Unfortunately, most of those dreams get lost to my laziness or fear of failing. Recently a read a book called Love Does, and here’s where I’ll put forth my advertisement and tell you to read it. I found it to be immensely inspiring and immediately following its completion I had convinced myself that the only life for me is to hop on a plane and then country by country I would uproot injustice with my fiery passion for helping others…. Retrospectively, I now understand that as a college student, I think it’s a rule of thumb that we all must go through several pompous, though well-intended, expeditions into an ignorant push for world peace. But the point of this book is, who cares how ambitious your ideas may be, a simple effort that is put forth can make all the change in the world–otherwise, like most of my monumental ideas, they will become just a distant memory and remain a construct of the mind, and not a realizable change. I mean how many times have we all heard “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” but left it to be a inspirational quote when we want to feel better, or a nice talking point in theoretical conversation. Rarely does Gandhi’s quote become our lifestyle. Frankly, I am fed up with myself not doing trying my ideas. I don’t have Love Does with me currently, but I believe the author, Bob Goff, said something along the lines of
“I used to be afraid of failing at the things that really mattered to me, but now I’m more afraid of succeeding at things that don’t matter”
– and it is along that line that I want to try out my crazy, possibly even stupid ideas. I very much believe that even if 10% of every good idea we as the human race had was put into action, we could see phenomenal changes in our world.
So essentially, my idea is coming in conjunction with the possibility of making this into something bigger than just a few people picking up garbage. What if we could get more of the community involved? Consider the possibility of giving some incentive to help out to those people that frequent these parks and rummage through garbage for bottles and cans. Every can or bottle found can be deposited and given to an organization that helps out with the homeless population in Kalamazoo. Just last weekend, I talked with the head of a neighborhood association that was helping out at a community event, which got me thinking about ways to connect this to preexisting organizations. What if we could make this more personal as well. I know that in my neighborhood, there is garbage in many yards. If we could set up days where, lets say, everyone on a block cleans up for 30-60 minutes. This could build community and clean the neighborhood. Linking this up with Kalamazoo College and relevant student organizations could also give a simple volunteer opportunities for students to go out into Kalamazoo’s community.
With the prospect of a website, I am envisioning a dynamic way for people to keep track of their progress. At one event I participated in, all of the volunteers broke off into groups and tried to find the most trash. We kept track of almost everything we found. This website could use the services of Google Maps to allow people to mark where they have picked up garbage, keep track of what they picked up and maybe even highlight the most interesting thing the found (This morning I found three empty checkbooks draped over a tree branch).
So… thats what this is blog is all about.
At one point this morning, I had jumped down to the edge of the stream next to the park to pull a large black trash bag out of the mud, but when I pulled, my pants were splattered with foul smelling mud and the bag ripped, additionally, I now felt a small sharp sensation around my wrist. After managing to get half of the bag out of the mud, I crawled back up to the grass and noticed both of my sleeves were coated in burrs. They had somehow managed to reach up inside my sleeve as well. Burrs really don’t hurt at all, but they tend to be very annoying. I had been pulling them off, but I suddenly stopped and smiled. This is how I want to live. I want to go out, and when I go back home, I want mud caked on my pants and burrs covering my arms. Although I now have to do my laundry sooner than I planned, I know that I went out and did something cool–even though it will likely go unnoticed.
I am really excited to keep this going, and I hope to keep documenting what’s going. I want to keep doing stuff and I hope to share this simple, but meaningful experience of going out and getting our sleeves covered in burrs.
Thanks for reading this long introduction, and please let me know what you are thinking!