Somehow, my idea of a kid picking up a small plastic grocery bag of neighborhood litter proceeded to a $10,000 anonymous donation and a fulfilling volunteer occupation. Incidentally, I didn’t work this hard at any of my paid positions throughout my “real” working life.
This story begins in 2014, after I retired from my career as a tutoring specialist at the local community college. Amanda, a nine-year-old neighbor girl, came over to our singlewide mobile home and asked how she might earn some spending money. Without hesitation, I handed Amanda an empty, two-gallon, plastic grocery bag and told her to go out into the neighborhood to find and pick up litter, then bring the filled bag back to me. She did what I directed, and I gave her a dollar for her efforts. That scenario worked so well that other neighbors, including adults, asked to work along a similar vein. The City of Clearlake is statistically the lowest-income city in all of California, which may explain why a person here might seek poverty wages.
The $10,000 donation came a month later, shortly after my husband Edwin and I attended a monthly dinner. In a chance conversation with a fellow dinner guest, I said that I wished I had a pot of money to give to the people of Clearlake for cleaning up our town. This guest and I brainstormed for all of five minutes about ways such a project could help meet the needs of the people who hold up signs in front of local stores: “Need food/money/work/anything will help.” Several days later, that anonymous dinner guest offered me a $10,000 donation for executing my idea. I was stunned, but not for long. I quickly and happily set to work to find a nonprofit service organization that could serve as our fiscal agent and settled on North Coast Opportunities. Then I asked others from the community to meet with me to think through a plan. We named our organization “Citizens Caring For Clearlake” (CC4C), complete with a vision, mission statement, and website – CC4CL.org.
I discovered that our initial idea of tent-dwellers (AKA homeless people) falling into line to clean up Clearlake was largely wishful thinking. For one thing, tent-dwellers are typically people facing multiple challenges. We found that work parties of homeless people along side CC4C people promoted both efficiency and camaraderie. CC4C now gives away pre-purchased $5 or $10 grocery gift cards in exchange for an hour of litter pick-up.
Another discovery I have made is that becoming acquainted with one another through this work is much more important than the actual accomplishment of picking up garbage because – surprise, surprise – the garbage will doubtless return, perhaps even later that day, and on one level, the work of picking up litter is an exercise in futility. I understand now that the over-riding benefits, goals, and challenges of this work lie in community building and loving one’s neighbors, particularly those who litter. When I am tempted to inwardly curse a litterer, I often remember to repeat my mantra, “God loves you. God bless you. And this is a job for Jesus.” I try to remind myself that CC4C is really a front organization for sharing community and love.
Our work is in the moment, every moment. As I ride my bike around town, I frequently stop to pick up discarded cups, candy wrappers, etc. This reminds me of the monks who walk a short distance, prostrate themselves onto the ground, walk another short distance, again prostrate themselves onto the ground, and cover many a mile that way. The journey itself, together with the mantra, is at least as important as the destination.
Of course, instead of picking up litter and garbage, I could be writing and calling my congressional representatives every waking hour. I do feel torn about how best to use the hours in a day. But we of CC4C have a rule: “If it’s not fun, we don’t want to do it. And stop if this ‘play’ feels too much like work.” There is always time to balance work and play. So far, I have had some of the most fun going into local grade schools, clarinet in hand, and teaching the old song, “Please, please, pick up each litter bit. . . Stash it into the trash” (The lyric used to be, “Please, please, don’t be a litter bug. . . Cause every litter bit hurts.”) We also had fun planting daffodil bulbs, which bloomed in all of their splendor around a city park sign.
The tangible experience of seeing a marked improvement in an area is satisfying indeed. For instance, someone recently abandoned an old pop-up camper trailer, filled with all manner of household garbage, a block from our home. The contents were slimy and just plain disgusting. The camper appeared late afternoon on a Tuesday, and we knew the location of a dumpster that would be emptied early on Wednesday morning. So, two pick-up loads later, the “disgusting contents” were in the dumpster, ready to be delivered to the landfill; the old pop-up camper was ready to be tagged and pulled away through the Abandoned Vehicle Abatement program; our rubber gloves and clothing were ready for the wash; and we were enjoying the feeling of accomplishment and physical exertion that one feels after a strenuous workout. Yes, the filled trash bags often get heavy, and I am physically spent after some of the tasks we take on. Even so, the work gives me pleasure.
Our group is constantly brainstorming strategies to stem the tide of illegal dumping and littering. We are encouraged by programs such as Bye, Bye Mattress of the Mattress Recycling Council; Abandoned Vehicle Abatement, sponsored by the California Highway Patrol; and California programs to redeem aluminum cans, plastic, and bottles. We are inspired by the city of Roseburg, Oregon, which simply provides citizens with free trash removal services, making garbage collection no different from tax-supported fire and police protection.
My personal challenge is to help the ten-year-old boys in my neighborhood become conscious enough to dispose of their candy wrappers and soft drink containers in the proper places, rather than dropping them along the street. Maybe we need to place refuse containers on every block. Maybe we need a public-service media campaign to remind people of their oneness with Mother Earth and to discourage them from trashing her. The slogans could go something like, “If children live with wonder of nature, they learn to appreciate and preserve Mother Earth.” Or, “If children live with love and cooperation, they know they are included in the human family.” Kids must know they are part of the team and therefore wouldn’t think of muddying their nest. Then, hopefully, the kids will extend that consciousness to their parents.
I can’t help but ask myself why the members of our group have become so relentless about cleaning up garbage, out of all life choices, when most of us care deeply about dozens of other issues as well. It seems likely that we all need a break from the other causes – especially ones that are not quick fixes. I am tempted to feel overwhelmed and in despair over disturbing political events, and there are times I feel insignificant adding my name to yet another life-or-death on-line petition. I find great comfort in actions that make for instant success. Frankly, I need some wins, no matter how small.
While we may not win the Nobel Peace Prize or provide affordable housing for all, today Royal and I cleaned up the illegal dumpsite in the lot behind our house. The walk through the woods is now beautiful. All feels right with the world for this moment, and Royal has a gift card for putting food on his table. ~~~
Barbara Christwitz is a member of Redwood Forest Friends Meeting (PYM) and attends Lake County Worship Group.