By: Bennett Slavsky
It’s hard to remember the last time I woke up at 5:45 a.m. for anything, let alone to volunteer on a Saturday morning. But I did, and without complaint, because I am new and because I wanted to make a good impression. I brewed a cup of coffee and cooked an egg with dry toast, and stepped out of my apartment to see the last few stars dwindling away with the dawn.
I embarked on the half hour commute and made it to Sixth Street Park by 7 a.m., just like I promised I would, to find Ondrea Spychalski, the coordinator of the event, and her team already frantically setting up tables.
“I’m OK at writing,” I told them, “but tables and chairs are literally my specialty.”
We set up the breakfast buffet of doughnut holes and coffee and the registration tables with stacks of tee shirts, as the morning sun just started to touch Grand Rapids and the Grand River. Volunteers began to arrive around 8 a.m. and started pouring coffee and putting on a variety of symbolically colored shirts—earth, wind, fire, water, and heart.
Ondrea handed me a bag full of supplies and slapped a nametag on me that read:
Site #16 Bus I
As if we needed something else to further complicate the morning, it started to rain. Volunteers began putting on trash bag looking ponchos and crowding under the pavilion. Rain or shine, that river was going to get clean. The only thing that could stop us would be a lightning bolt or a tornado. But still, it would be nice to not be wet.
More and more people began congregating in the park, and it was almost time to officially kick off the 13th Annual Mayor’s Grand River Cleanup. The 750 volunteers crowded around the PA system in the early morning mist, as Mayor Bliss, in her multicolored mud boots, gave her speech of how proud she was of our city. With a few final words and a great big thank you from Ondrea, we were off.
As luck would have it, just as everyone was loading up to depart to our different locations; there was a part in the clouds. The rain stopped and a ray of sunshine shone down on the city. A warm thank you from the earth.
“Hello everyone!” I said to my bus, “My name is Bennett and I am your site leader. Any and all questions that you have can be directed to me, at which time I will file with HR and you can await your answers for two to six weeks. Now, I’m going to take roll call. When I call your name I want you to shout out your favorite animal. Byron!”
Some people laughed, some looked at me like I was mad, then Byron shouted out, “Red panda!”
“Great answer Byron. Emily!”
“How strangely specific. Bill!” and so on.
We arrived at Site #16, an old storage unit off Market St. right along The Grand. My group crossed the footbridge and dispersed along the river’s edge. My oh my the treasures we found! At least fifteen pairs of pants, a collection of mismatched shoes, an air mattress, and a suitcase—just to name a few. It was fun, really. My group laughed and joked as we got to know one another, playing around in the muck and the mire.
We filled bags upon bags of trash picked up off the banks of the river, and it started to put things into perspective for me. In less than two hours, my group filled more that twenty-five bags of trash and ten bags of recycling, and it pains me to say it, but we still had a long way to go. We could work sunup to sundown for days and still not clean every piece of trash off the banks of The Grand. We need hands; the river needs hands and more good-hearted people to bring its natural beauty back to the pristine state it was once in. The city of Grand Rapids would not exist without the Grand River, so we must cherish it and care for it.
When we returned to Sixth Street Park, the registration tables became lunch tables, with complimentary subs and pizza and tacos laid out for the dedicated volunteers. There was a Founder’s beer garden for those of age, and a rocking local band, Big Dudee Roo. Mayor Bliss had mud on her boots and a smile on her face for her very first cleanup as Mayor. We sat in the grass and talked and laughed about our morning and all the fun and whacky and weird things that happened. What I had originally thought would be a hassle and a chore for a Saturday morning, turned out to be a beautiful, fun, and rewarding experience.
Just as the afternoon’s events were wrapping up—as the food and kegs were polished off, as the band finished their set, and as the good-hearted people were heading home—the sky darkened and the rain began pouring down in waves. The weather held out until the very last minute—as if Mother Nature knew to keep us dry for just a few hours on that Saturday morning.