Student, professor donate break to river cleanup


Nonprofit Leadership Studies major Zach McCarver (front) cleaning on the Mississippi River. (Photo courtesy of Mike Gowen)

Ava Chuppe, Senior Writer

A professor and student in the nonprofit leadership studies program spent Spring Break volunteering for the Living Lands and Waters organization, cleaning up tributaries of the Mississippi River in the Memphis, Tennessee, area.

The organization, founded in 1998, is headquartered in East Moline, Illinois. It focuses on rivershed cleanups, watershed conservation projects and other conservation initiatives, including educational programs.

Living Lands and Waters has conducted its alternative Spring Break program for 12 years. This year, volunteers like Professor Mike Gowen and senior NLS major Zach McCarver picked up around 80,000 pounds of trash over three weeks.

They helped to clean up McKellar Lake, Wolf River and Nonconnah Creek.

Gowen has been acquainted with the organization since its founding. He and McCarver underwent this particular Spring Break program after the education coordinator for Living Lands and Waters served as a guest speaker in Gowen’s Nonprofits and the Environment class.

Gowen was previously involved with the organization’s educational workshops when he taught outdoor recreation at the University.

“They recently came back into the radar in a big way because they came after the tornadoes in Mayfield and western Kentucky and all the damage at [Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley],” Gowen said. “They started their season early in late December, early January that year and cleaned up 1.3 million pounds of tornado damage in the lakes.”

McCarver said he did not know much about what to expect going into the program.

“I knew, very basically, we were going to pick up trash,” McCarver said. “The first full day we got there, there was actually a film crew there. There’s a different nonprofit that does storytelling work around different conservation efforts around the world, and they reached out and wanted to do this short 10-minute film for them.”

Student volunteers spent some of their time participating in interviews for the documentary, which McCarver said was a delicate balance.

“The rest of the week, we hit it pretty hard picking up trash, filling bags and getting chunks of styrofoam out of the banks,” McCarver said.

Living Lands and Waters does a good job of interacting with their volunteers, McCarver said

“They’re really doing everything right, and you can kind of tell how that influences the energy of the volunteers,” McCarver said. “That’s the kind of organization that I want to work for. People that are on the front lines, doing things that nobody else is really doing, being innovative and kind of pushing the boundaries when it comes to climate solutions.”

Gowen echoed McCarver’s sentiment, saying the organization engages with volunteers in an interesting way.

“They make cleaning up trash fun,” Gowen said. “They have a person drive the DJ boat and play music while students are picking up trash. They’re having a dance party picking up trash…It’s kind of that combination of fun and rewarding.”

According to their website, the organization has cleaned up around 13 million pounds of trash since its founding, which Gowen said is a testament to the work it has done.

“It’s one of the reasons I love the organization so much,” Gowen said. “They really also have a parallel of education components, so everybody that does these cleanups learns why it’s important, learns how they can take it home with them and kind of prevent some of the things that cause such a need for this.”

Gowen said witnessing college students give up their Spring Break made him hopeful for the future.

“That’s amazing in and of itself to go do what they did, but it’s how hard they worked and how much they put into it that was,” Gowen said. “They didn’t come to it just to put on their resume that they did an alternative Spring Break. They were working extremely hard.”

For anyone interested in helping the environment, Gowen says he suggests getting involved with initiatives or the community.

“I would just encourage people to get involved with not even necessarily nonprofits but just with helping others in the way they can,” Gowen said. “It can be fun, and it’s not just drudgery to go and do things. You can make anything fun when you look at it with a particular attitude.”