By Courtney Westlake
UIS celebrated Earth Day on Tuesday evening, April 21, with a presentation by Chad Pregracke called "Making a Difference in the World: My Journey to Clean America’s Rivers."
Pregracke spoke to the UIS and Springfield community about his experiences growing up near the Mississippi River, which led him to the vision of cleaning the river a little at a time.
"I am going to talk about picking up the river one piece of garbage at a time, and I'm not just talking about picking up little pieces of garbage, but picking up thousands of 55 gallon barrels, appliances, sunken boats, you name it," he said.
In 1997, Pregracke founded a not-for-profit environmental organization called Living Lands & Waters, which has involved tens of thousands of volunteers with community-based river cleanups, Riverbottom Restoration Projects, Adopt-a-River Mile Programs and Big River Educational Workshops.
"I had one goal, and it was simple: to clean up the river," he said.
It took Pregracke years before he turned his vision into reality and slowly acquired a crew, barges and other equipment necessary for large-scale cleanups. He began organizing community cleanups, and now travels around the country with his crew of 11 fulltime staff.
"One of the most important things I have learned is how much people care about the environment in general, and I learned that right off the bat. Right after a story aired on CNN, I got baskets full of letters saying 'great job', 'way to go, the Mississippi River is a treasure' and all kinds of stuff," he said.
Some years Pregracke's crew is on the rivers cleaning for six months, and sometimes as many as nine months. To date, they have had more than 50,000 people volunteer and have cleaned more than five million pounds of garbage since the organization started. They work primarily on the Mississippi River but also on the Illinois River, Ohio River and as far east as the Washington D.C. area, Pregracke said.
Living Lands & Waters has also just started planting trees on islands to provide habitats and food for wildlife. They started a nursery in Beardstown to grow their own trees and have given out 100,000 trees in last three weeks.
During his presentation, Pregracke encouraged attendees, and especially students, to pursue any dream they have and not let anyone tell them they can't do it.
"Anything you want to do is totally feasible; if you set out to do something that's going to have a positive effect on yourself, the people around you, your community, know that you can do it," he said.