It was early for a Saturday morning, but there wasn't a tired eye in the group. Thirty of us sat outside Merritt Athletic Center before filing into seven cars to make the six-hour trip to Ohio, where we had found an office building willing to take us in for the night. The next morning, we'd complete the trip to Louisville, K.Y., where we would spend our Spring Break cleaning the Ohio River with the non-profit environmental organization Living Lands and Waters (LL&W).
The trip was conceived by junior Alicia Housel, who was inspired after a lecture at Geneseo by Chad Pregracke, the founder of LL&W. The idea was then put into the hands of the Geneseo Outing Club, which developed it into an Alternative Spring Break. LL&W paid over $8,000 of our expenses, from six nights of room and board at a local seminary to over $300 for lunch every day we worked. Each member of the trip paid only $50.
When we arrived in Columbus, Ohio, we spent the first couple hours playing card games and ice-breakers and the next couple searching for an open and appealing restaurant. This was a remarkably difficult task at 10 p.m. By the end of the day, when we retired to the floor of an office suite, we had succeeded in turning faces into names.
The next morning, nine members of the group woke up early to explore Mammoth Cave. The rest were back on the road to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. By the last rest stop we were immersed in southern culture, which seemed, for better or worse, simpler and slower than New York life. Flatter land, warmer weather and smoking in gas stations all signaled the beginning of our Spring Break. Upon arriving, we met the people we would be working with, including a group of 16 students from Monmouth College in Illinois and the team from LL&W.
After a bit of unpacking, we drove to the riverside, not to work but to enjoy the first hint of spring weather in months. Reduced to short sleeves, we hunted for the world's oldest and largest Devonian fossils. Just above the rocky shore, we toured the Falls of the Ohio museum, learning some of the history of the river we were about to clean. Few jobs are so appreciated by so many members of the community. The same evening, we were given free and fine dining in the private room of a classy restaurant, overlooking the river.
The nice weather continued on Monday, our first day of work. From the top of the hill, which marked the shore of the river after a flood, to the water's edge, the ground was covered in garbage. Scraps, bottles, hot water heaters, tires and barrels had been taken by floods from people's back yards to be distributed along the riverside. Each day, we finished no later than 4 p.m., which afforded more than enough time for a social life in Louisville. With ping-pong and pool tables, basketball and racquetball courts, and a pool and hot-tub, many occupied their time within the seminary. Others went contra dancing, and still others attended a free concert by MOE.
On Tuesday, we moved down the river, to the falls, which rushes water under a bridge and around a muddy beach filled with trash. On the shore, dozens of tires and several water heaters were embedded deep in the ground, taking half a dozen people a half hour to pull each one out. When the work was done, the beach was spotless.
The sun finally gave way to rain on Wednesday, which was cooler as well. We spent our time clearing out an invasive plant species, honeysuckle, which was slowly destroying the natural habitat. Though LL&W offered us the later part of the day off, 15 members of our group stayed to clean up all the piles of branches. Later that afternoon, the Louisville Science Center closed its doors to the public, giving us free access to all of their exhibits for two hours.
The rain and chilly weather pressed on through Thursday, but no one's ambitions were fizzling out. We continued to clean garbage, with varying degrees of struggle, and again saw the impact of our work at the end of the day. We spent the afternoon and evening at Bards Town to shop, the Karma Café to salsa dance, the IMAX theatre to see 300, or simply the seminary to enjoy each other's company.
Friday was our last full day in Kentucky. We spent the morning cleaning a long stretch of the beach, which had the largest collection of garbage and the most fascinating landscape we had seen. We spent the night downtown in Louisville, to a weekly festival of shopping, dining and entertainment. Between the morning of work and the night of T.G.I. Fridays, Pregracke brought us together at the seminary to commend us for our accomplishments and share some of his own. Pregracke's story, which will be shared in his upcoming book, From the Bottom Up, is as awesome as it is inspiring. Everything he overcame to live his dream and establish his organization is truly compelling.
Riding back on Saturday with tanned skin, dirty clothes and achy muscles, exhaustion finally set in. We had removed 50 tons of garbage from the Ohio riverside, waking up early each day and staying up late into the night. Arriving at Geneseo 12 hours later, the entire crew met at Mama Mia's, and it would have been impossible to tell that any of us had been strangers just a week before.