A group of St. Ambrose students returned from spring break empowered with the knowledge of the change they can create in the world and the ways the world must change, too.
"We picked up over 40,000 pounds of trash from the Mississippi River and sometimes, it felt like what I was doing wasn't enough," said SAU senior Katelyn Mack.
She, junior Perla Hernandez, sophomore Emily Kenney, senior Logan Norcross, and junior Amelia Seutter spent spring break in Memphis, cleaning up the waters and banks of the Mississippi. They joined 70 college students from across the U.S. in a week of service, working side-by-side with the crew of Living Lands & Waters.
They, along with Director of Music and Liturgy, Christopher Clow, spent March 11-14 dressed in life jackets, thick sweatshirts and jeans, knee-high boots and gloves. They worked from fishing boats and tromped through soggy, muddy shores to dig out and pick up trash people carelessly threw aside.
"My eyes have really been opened to the tragic amount of pollution we are willingly or ignorantly tossing into nature," Emily said. "I've changed my habits since the very first day on the Mississippi."
Campus Ministry and Ambrosians for Peace and Justice offered three spring break service trips this year, and each was an immersive experience. Students, and faculty and staff who served as group leaders, serve and impact the world side-by-side with those living it.
In addition to the Memphis trip, five students and Rev. Thom Hennen spent the week in Wilmington, North Carolina, working with Community Collaborations Inc. They helped residents impacted by Hurricane Florence by replace flooring, cleaning a flooded home, and sorting donations for Habitat Restore.
Two students and Director of Faith Formation Tammy Norcross-Reitzler spent the week at Well of Mercy in Chicago, which houses and helps expecting and new mothers, and their children. The families who live at the Well receive on-site childcare while the mothers work or attend school. The SAU group helped with childcare, organized donations, completed cleaning projects, and most importantly, built relationships with the mothers and children.
"All the trips went great this year," said Kaitlin Bormann, Campus Ministry's director of service and justice. "It's a privilege to get to provide these experiences for our students."
Logan signed up to serve because he missed doing so. He used to take mission trips in high school. "I wanted to make a difference again. I wanted to meet new people and make new friends," he said.
Katelyn said for her, service is an important part of the Catholic faith. "It allows me to give back to God and the community," she said.
"Acquiring skills and knowledge are useless unless they are used for the betterment of all," Perla said. "Going to college and attaining a degree is an amazing accomplishment, but if the sole focus is to just work for the collection of money, there is a lack of fulfillment and self-actuation that comes from helping others. Service serves you as much as you serve others," she said.
Emily said the experience went far beyond service. "There were so many fun adventures we had while at work and relaxing during our evenings off. We tried topping each other's odd finds and built friendships, literally, based on trash," she said.
Alternative Spring Break
Five SAU students spent spring break in service to the environment. Working with college students and group leaders from across the U.S., they collected 40,000 pounds of trash from the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tenn.
Living Lands & Waters is a nonprofit established in 1998 by Quad Citian Chad Pregracke '03 (HON). He and the crew spend up to nine months a year living and traveling on a barge. They host river cleanups, watershed conservation initiatives, workshops, tree plantings and more.
In the past 20 years, Living Lands & Waters has removed more than 10 million pounds of trash from waterways, including the Mississippi, Illinois and Ohio rivers, with the help of 110,106 volunteers.
In June 2002, Pregracke was the recipient of the Jefferson Award for Public Service. He was named CNN's "Hero of the Year" in 2013, exactly a decade after receiving an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree from St. Ambrose.
Amelia said the crew of Living Lands & Waters made the work fun and let the students know how much they appreciated their time, effort and service.
"Throughout the week, Chad and the team would give us a speech on why our hard work makes a difference. He was truly thankful that we were there helping the organization. Over the course of the four days, college students collected tens of thousands of pounds of trash. To me, this shows that teamwork makes the dream work, we can help save our earth by picking up one piece of trash at a time," she said.
Amelia was one of two students on the trip who had spent past spring breaks serving with Living Lands & Waters. Amelia helped with the clean-up in Memphis in 2017, and Katelyn worked on the Illinois River clean-up last year in Grafton, Illinois.
"I loved last year's trip and didn't want to spend my senior year spring break just sitting around or working. It's a tough week, but the time flies by so fast that you forget how hard you are actually working," Katelyn said.
In four days, the entire group collected 40,000 pounds of trash, including television sets, rusted propane tanks, scrap metal, and more from the water and shores.
Katelyn found a doll that stood as high as her waist.
Amelia found so many shoes a crew member nicknamed her "flip flop."
Emily found two full tall boys of Bud Light and a partial gallon of milk. "My nose was not a fan. I also was surprised about the number of toys we found, some in very good condition," she said.
They used shovels to release tires encased in mud and pulled trash out of weeds, including poison ivy.
"A member of the group found a shoe almost completely covered in moss," Perla said. "It gave a visual indication as to how long it must have been in the environment for the moss to grow like that."
The SAU students were appalled by the amount of Styrofoam they collected. "It was everywhere. Some in huge chunks from refrigerator packing, and others in tiny bits that had been broken apart," Emily said.
"The team and I full-heartily agree to avoid Styrofoam at all costs," Amelia said. "Not only does it take, literally, forever for it to decompose, but it also serves as a hazard to the wildlife that lives along the river."
Plastic and glass bottles, and straws, also made the top of the ‘most collected' list.
"These things take many, many years to degrade," Logan said, "so, they will end up somewhere. Bottles need to be recycled and people need to stop using one-time use products."
Katelyn said she was surprised by the number of lighters they found. "There were some spots where I could sit and pick up five or more without moving. One thing I wish people knew about the trash is that some city drainage systems don't get cleaned before they go into a river. If you throw a bottle in a drain in Memphis, it will go straight into the Mississippi" she said.
Every person needs to realize what they consume goes far beyond convenience, Emily said. "And if they are going to continue to use these products, they need to make sure they do their part in disposing of them in the correct manner; recycling or trash. Not only do these wastes clutter on land and water, but they also contaminate water supplies and animals' habitats," she added.
"My eyes have really been opened to the tragic amount of pollution we are willingly or ignorantly tossing into nature. I've changed my habits since the very first day on the Mississippi."
High winds and choppy water caused Living Lands & Waters to call off cleanup efforts a few hours early Thursday. After lunch on the barge, the students and Clow returned to the marina for the last time.
"No, it was not enough," Logan said about the work they did. "There were still miles and miles of garbage out there. I think we need to create a new normal. We have to teach our kids good green habits," he said, adding the trip inspired him to change his own habits.
"If I can stop or minimize the number of one-use products I use, it may contribute to a new normal while also helping to minimize waste in the world," Logan said.
"There were times where we would have to ‘choose our battles' and leave trash some places so that we could pick up more trash elsewhere," Katelyn said.
"That aspect was kind of frustrating, but understandable - we had to choose between filling multiple trash bags with bottles and other medium-sized trash or sit and pick up one-inch pieces of Styrofoam for hours. I hope that the work that Chad and the crew does can inspire others to help out and cut back on pollution," Katelyn added.
Every day the pile of garbage bags on the barge got larger and larger, which made the sore muscles worth it. "But knowing there was still trash out in the river also inspired me to further pursue my own academic work in attempting to find a solution. I am studying to become an environmental engineer to solve issues such as the disposal and collection of waste in nature," Perla said.
"This is where the spring breakers step in to promote the Living Lands & Waters message," Amelia said. "After the experience, I am more willing to educate people on what happens if they don't recycle or throw their trash away," she said.
Every person needs to do their part to solve the overwhelming problem, Emily said. "However, in the grand scheme of it all, I was a drop of water in the ocean, a stepping stone to reach the ultimate goal, and I am proud to say I was a part of something much bigger than myself," she said.
"I hope to impact many other people through my experience. My work was most definitely not enough, but it made a dent with the goal of making the whole front fender of a vehicle fall off; which we found one on the river!"